Mitochondria contain small genomes that are physically separate from those of nuclei. Their comparison serves as a model system for understanding the processes of genome evolution. Although complete mitochondrial genome sequences have been reported for more than 600 animals, the taxonomic sampling is highly biased toward vertebrates and arthropods, leaving much of the diversity yet uncharacterized.
The mitochondrial genome of the bellybutton nautilus, Nautilus macromphalus, a cephalopod mollusk, is 16,258 nts in length and 59.5% A+T, both values that are typical of animal mitochondrial genomes. It contains the 37 genes that are almost universally found in animal mtDNAs, with 15 on one DNA strand and 22 on the other. The arrangement of these genes can be derived from that of the distantly related Katharina tunicata (Mollusca: Polyplacophora) by a switch in position of two large blocks of genes and transpositions of four tRNA genes. There is strong skew in the distribution of nucleotides between the two strands, and analysis of this yields insight into modes of transcription and replication. There is an unusual number of non-coding regions and their function, if any, is not known; however, several of these demark abrupt shifts in nucleotide skew, and there are several identical sequence elements at these junctions, suggesting that they may play roles in transcription and/or replication. One of the non-coding regions contains multiple repeats of a tRNA-like sequence. Some of the tRNA genes appear to overlap on the same strand, but this could be resolved if the polycistron were cleaved at the beginning of the downstream gene, followed by polyadenylation of the product of the upstream gene to form a fully paired structure.
Nautilus macromphalus mtDNA contains an expected gene content that has experienced few rearrangements since the evolutionary split between cephalopods and polyplacophorans. It contains an unusual number of non-coding regions, especially considering that these otherwise often are generated by the same processes that produce gene rearrangements. The skew in nucleotide composition between the two strands is strong and associated with the direction of transcription in various parts of the genomes, but a comparison with K. tunicata implies that mutational bias during replication also plays a role. This appears to be yet another case where polyadenylation of mitochondrial tRNAs restores what would otherwise be an incomplete structure.