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Genome-wide signals of positive selection in strongylocentrotid sea urchins.



Comparative genomics studies investigating the signals of positive selection among groups of closely related species are still rare and limited in taxonomic breadth. Such studies show great promise in advancing our knowledge about the proportion and the identity of genes experiencing diversifying selection. However, methodological challenges have led to high levels of false positives in past studies. Here, we use the well-annotated genome of the purple sea urchin, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, as a reference to investigate the signals of positive selection at 6520 single-copy orthologs from nine sea urchin species belonging to the family Strongylocentrotidae paying careful attention to minimizing false positives.


We identified 1008 (15.5%) candidate positive selection genes (PSGs). Tests for positive selection along the nine terminal branches of the phylogeny identified 824 genes that showed lineage-specific adaptive diversification (1.67% of branch-sites tests performed). Positively selected codons were not enriched at exon borders or near regions containing missing data, suggesting a limited contribution of false positives caused by alignment or annotation errors. Alignments were validated at 10 loci with re-sequencing using Sanger methods. No differences were observed in the rates of synonymous substitution (d S), GC content, and codon bias between the candidate PSGs and those not showing positive selection. However, the candidate PSGs had 68% higher rates of nonsynonymous substitution (d N) and 33% lower levels of heterozygosity, consistent with selective sweeps and opposite to that expected by a relaxation of selective constraint. Although positive selection was identified at reproductive proteins and innate immunity genes, the strongest signals of adaptive diversification were observed at extracellular matrix proteins, cell adhesion molecules, membrane receptors, and ion channels. Many candidate PSGs have been widely implicated as targets of pathogen binding, inactivation, mimicry, or exploitation in other groups (notably mammals).


Our study confirmed the widespread action of positive selection across sea urchin genomes and allowed us to reject the possibility that annotation and alignment errors (including paralogs) were responsible for creating false signals of adaptive molecular divergence. The candidate PSGs identified in our study represent promising targets for future research into the selective agents responsible for their adaptive diversification and their contribution to speciation.

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