Extra base hits: Widespread empirical support for instantaneous multiple-nucleotide changes.


Despite many attempts to introduce evolutionary models that permit substitutions to instantly alter more than one nucleotide in a codon, the prevailing wisdom remains that such changes are rare and generally negligible or are reflective of non-biological artifacts, such as alignment errors. Codon models continue to posit that only single nucleotide change have non-zero rates. Here, we develop and test a simple hierarchy of codon-substitution models with non-zero evolutionary rates for only one-nucleotide (1H), one- and two-nucleotide (2H), or any (3H) codon substitutions. Using over 42, 000 empirical alignments, we find widespread statistical support for multiple hits: 61% of alignments prefer models with 2H allowed, and 23%-with 3H allowed. Analyses of simulated data suggest that these results are not likely to be due to simple artifacts such as model misspecification or alignment errors. Further modeling reveals that synonymous codon island jumping among codons encoding serine, especially along short branches, contributes significantly to this 3H signal. While serine codons were prominently involved in multiple-hit substitutions, there were other common exchanges contributing to better model fit. It appears that a small subset of sites in most alignments have unusual evolutionary dynamics not well explained by existing model formalisms, and that commonly estimated quantities, such as dN/dS ratios may be biased by model misspecification. Our findings highlight the need for continued evaluation of assumptions underlying workhorse evolutionary models and subsequent evolutionary inference techniques. We provide a software implementation for evolutionary biologists to assess the potential impact of extra base hits in their data in the HyPhy package and in the server.

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