Natural selection leaves its footprints on protein-coding sequences by modulating their silent and replacement evolutionary rates. In highly expressed genes in invertebrates, these footprints are seen in the higher codon usage bias and lower synonymous divergence. In mammals, the highly expressed genes have a shorter gene length in the genome and the breadth of expression is known to constrain the rate of protein evolution. Here we have examined how the rates of evolution of proteins encoded by the vertebrate genomes are modulated by the amount (intensity) of gene expression. To understand how natural selection operates on proteins that appear to have arisen in earlier and later phases of animal evolution, we have contrasted patterns of mouse proteins that have homologs in invertebrate and protist genomes (Precambrian genes) with those that do not have such detectable homologs (vertebrate-specific genes). We find that the intensity of gene expression relates inversely to the rate of protein sequence evolution on a genomic scale. The most highly expressed genes actually show the lowest total number of substitutions per polypeptide, consistent with cumulative effects of purifying selection on individual amino acid replacements. Precambrian genes exhibit a more pronounced difference in protein evolutionary rates (up to three times) between the genes with high and low expression levels as compared to the vertebrate-specific genes, which appears to be due to the narrower breadth of expression of the vertebrate-specific genes. These results provide insights into the differential relationship and effect of the increasing complexity of animal body form on evolutionary rates of proteins.
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