Date of Award

Summer 8-2-2012

Degree Type


Degree Name


Degree Program

Conservation Biology


Biological Sciences

Major Professor

Nicola Mary Anthony

Second Advisor

Steve Johnson

Third Advisor

Charles Bell

Fourth Advisor

Mary Clancy

Fifth Advisor

Prescott Deininger

Sixth Advisor

Michael Jensen-Seaman


The mitochondrial control region (MCR) has played an important role as a population genetic marker in many taxa but sequencing of complete eukaryotic genomes has revealed that nuclear integrations of mitochondrial DNA (numts) are abundant and widespread across many taxa. If left undetected, numts can inflate mitochondrial diversity and mislead interpretation of phylogenetic relationships. Comparative analyses of complete genomes in humans, orangutans and chimpanzees, and preliminary studies in gorillas have revealed high numt prevalence in great apes, but rigorous comparative analyses across taxa have been lacking.

The present study aimed to systematically compare the evolutionary dynamics of MCR numts in great apes. Firstly, an inventory numts derived from the region containing the MCR subdomains was carried out by genomic BLAST searches. Secondly, presence/absence of each candidate numt was determined in great ape taxa to estimate numt insertion rate. Thirdly, alternative mechanisms of numt insertion, either through direct mitochondrial integration or post-insertional duplications, were also assessed. Fourthly, the effect of nuclear and mitochondrial environment on patterns of nucleotide composition and substitution was assessed through sequence comparisons of nuclear and mitochondrial paralogous sequences. Finally, numts in the gorilla genome were identified through two experimental methods and their use as polymorphic genetic markers was then evaluated in a sample of captive gorillas from U.S. zoos.

A deficit of MCR numts covering two particular mitochondrial subdomains was detected in all three apes examined, and is largely attributed to rapid loss of mitochondrial and nuclear sequence identity in the mitochondrial genome. Insertion rates have varied during the great ape evolution and exhibit substantial differences even between related taxa. The most likely mechanism of numt insertion is direct mitochondrial integration through Non-Homologous-End-Joining Repair. Transition/transversion ratios differed significantly between both mitochondrial and nuclear sequences and between numts from coding and non-coding mitochondrial regions. A previously documented upward bias in the GC content of the primate mitochondrial genome was confirmed and the extent of this bias relative to the corresponding numt sequences increased with numt age. Five gorilla-specific numts were isolated, including three exhibiting insertional polymorphisms that will be used in future population genetic studies in free-range gorilla.


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