Multilocus phylogenies can be used to infer the species tree of a group of closely related species. In species trees, the nodes represent the actual separation between species, thus providing essential information about their evolutionary history. In addition, multilocus phylogenies can help in analyses of species delimitation, gene flow and genetic differentiation within species. However, few adequate markers are available for such studies.
In order to develop nuclear markers that can be useful in multilocus studies of mammals, we analyzed the mammalian genomes of human, chimpanzee, macaque, dog and cow. Rodents were excluded due to their unusual genomic features. Introns were extracted from the mammalian genomes because of their greater genetic variability and ease of amplification from the flanking exons. To an initial set of more than 10,000 one-to-one orthologous introns we applied several filters to select introns that belong to single-copy genes, show neutral evolutionary rates and have an adequate length for their amplification. This analysis led to a final list of 224 intron markers randomly distributed along the genome. To experimentally test their validity, we amplified twelve of these introns in a panel of six mammalian species. The result was that seven of these introns gave rise to a PCR band of the expected size in all species. In addition, we sequenced these bands and analyzed the accumulation of substitutions in these introns in five pairs of closely related species. The results showed that the estimated genetic distances in the five species pairs was quite variable among introns and that this divergence cannot be directly predicted from the overall intron divergence in mammals.
We have designed a new set of 224 nuclear introns with optimal features for the phylogeny of closely related mammalian species. A large proportion of the introns tested experimentally showed a perfect amplification and enough variability in most species, indicating that this marker set can be very helpful in multilocus phylogenetics of mammals. Due to the lower variability and stronger stochasticity of nuclear markers with respect to mitochondrial genes, studies should be designed to make use of several markers like the ones designed here.