Currently, the effects of chronic, continuous low dose environmental irradiation on the mitochondrial genome of resident small mammals are unknown. Using the bank vole (Myodes glareolus) as a model system, we tested the hypothesis that approximately 50 generations of exposure to the Chernobyl environment has significantly altered genetic diversity of the mitochondrial genome. Using deep sequencing, we compared mitochondrial genomes from 131 individuals from reference sites with radioactive contamination comparable to that present in northern Ukraine before the 26 April 1986 meltdown, to populations where substantial fallout was deposited following the nuclear accident. Population genetic variables revealed significant differences among populations from contaminated and uncontaminated localities. Therefore, we rejected the null hypothesis of no significant genetic effect from 50 generations of exposure to the environment created by the Chernobyl meltdown. Samples from contaminated localities exhibited significantly higher numbers of haplotypes and polymorphic loci, elevated genetic diversity, and a significantly higher average number of substitutions per site across mitochondrial gene regions. Observed genetic variation was dominated by synonymous mutations, which may indicate a history of purify selection against nonsynonymous or insertion/deletion mutations. These significant differences were not attributable to sample size artifacts. The observed increase in mitochondrial genomic diversity in voles from radioactive sites is consistent with the possibility that chronic, continuous irradiation resulting from the Chernobyl disaster has produced an accelerated mutation rate in this species over the last 25 years. Our results, being the first to demonstrate this phenomenon in a wild mammalian species, are important for understanding genetic consequences of exposure to low-dose radiation sources.
Phylogenetic comparisons of the different mammalian genetic transmission elements (mtDNA, X-, Y-, and autosomal DNA) is a powerful approach for understanding the process of speciation in nature. Through such comparisons the unique inheritance pathways of each genetic element and gender-biased processes can link genomic structure to the evolutionary process, especially among lineages which have recently diversified, in which genetic isolation may be incomplete. Bulldog bats of the genus Noctilio are an exemplar lineage, being a young clade, widely distributed, and exhibiting unique feeding ecologies. In addition, currently recognized species are paraphyletic with respect to the mtDNA gene tree and contain morphologically identifiable clades that exhibit mtDNA divergences as great as among many species. To test taxonomic hypotheses and understand the contribution of hybridization to the extant distribution of genetic diversity in Noctilio, we used phylogenetic, coalescent stochastic modeling, and divergence time estimates using sequence data from cytochrome-b, cytochrome c oxidase-I, zinc finger Y, and zinc finger X, as well as evolutionary reconstructions based on amplified fragment length polymorphisms (AFLPs) data. No evidence of ongoing hybridization between the two currently recognized species was identified. However, signatures of an ancient mtDNA capture were recovered in which an mtDNA lineage of one species was captured early in the noctilionid radiation. Among subspecific mtDNA clades, which were generally coincident with morphology and statistically definable as species, signatures of ongoing hybridization were observed in sex chromosome sequences and AFLP. Divergence dating of genetic elements corroborates the diversification of extant Noctilio beginning about 3 Ma, with ongoing hybridization between mitochondrial lineages separated by 2.5 myr. The timeframe of species' divergence within Noctilio supports the hypothesis that shifts in the dietary strategies of gleaning insects (N. albiventris) or fish (N. leporinus) are among the most rapid instances of dietary evolution observed in mammals. This study illustrates the complex evolutionary dynamics shaping gene pools in nature, how comparisons of genetic elements can serve for understanding species boundaries, and the complex considerations for accurate taxonomic assignment.