There is no universal molecular clock for invertebrates, but rate variation does not scale with body size

Thomas JA, Welch JJ, Woolfit M & Bromham L

(2006) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 103, 7366-7371.

The existence of a universal molecular clock has been called into question by observations that substitution rates vary widely between lineages. However, increasing empirical evidence for the systematic effects of different life history traits on the rate of molecular evolution has raised hopes that rate variation may be predictable, potentially allowing the "correction" of the molecular clock. One such example is the body size trend observed in vertebrates; smaller species tend to have faster rates of molecular evolution. This effect has led to the proposal of general predictive models correcting for rate heterogeneity and has also been invoked to explain discrepancies between molecular and paleontological dates for explosive radiations in the fossil record. Yet, there have been no tests of an effect in any nonvertebrate taxa. In this study, we have tested the generality of the body size effect by surveying a wide range of invertebrate metazoan lineages. DNA sequences and body size data were collected from the literature for 330 species across five phyla. Phylogenetic comparative methods were used to investigate a relationship between average body size and substitution rate at both interspecies and interfamily comparison levels. We demonstrate significant rate variation in all phyla and most genes examined, implying a strict molecular clock cannot be assumed for the Metazoa. Furthermore, we find no evidence of any influence of body size on invertebrate substitution rates. We conclude that the vertebrate body size effect is a special case, which cannot be simply extrapolated to the rest of the animal kingdom.

Andrew Rambaut, 2007