RNA editing is a post-transcriptional process that, in seed plants, involves a cytosine to uracil change in messenger RNA, causing the translated protein to differ from that predicted by the DNA sequence. RNA editing occurs extensively in plant mitochondria, but large differences in editing frequencies are found in some groups. The underlying processes responsible for the distribution of edited sites are largely unknown, but gene function, substitution rate, and gene conversion have been proposed to influence editing frequencies.
We studied five mitochondrial genes in the monocot order Alismatales, all showing marked differences in editing frequencies among taxa. A general tendency to lose edited sites was observed in all taxa, but this tendency was particularly strong in two clades, with most of the edited sites lost in parallel in two different areas of the phylogeny. This pattern is observed in at least four of the five genes analyzed. Except in the groups that show an unusually low editing frequency, the rate of C-to-T changes in edited sites was not significantly higher that in non-edited 3rd codon positions. This may indicate that selection is not actively removing edited sites in nine of the 12 families of the core Alismatales. In all genes but ccmB, a significant correlation was found between frequency of change in edited sites and synonymous substitution rate. In general, taxa with higher substitution rates tend to have fewer edited sites, as indicated by the phylogenetically independent correlation analyses. The elimination of edited sites in groups that lack or have reduced levels of editing could be a result of gene conversion involving a cDNA copy (retroprocessing). If so, this phenomenon could be relatively common in the Alismatales, and may have affected some groups recurrently. Indirect evidence of retroprocessing without a necessary correlation with substitution rate was found mostly in families Alismataceae and Hydrocharitaceae (e.g., groups that suffered a rapid elimination of all their edited sites, without a change in substitution rate).
The effects of substitution rate, selection, and/or gene conversion on the dynamics of edited sites in plant mitochondria remain poorly understood. Although we found an inverse correlation between substitution rate and editing frequency, this correlation is partially obscured by gene retroprocessing in lineages that have lost most of their edited sites. The presence of processed paralogs in plant mitochondria deserves further study, since most evidence of their occurrence is circumstantial.