Galtier et al. use a myth-busting review of the recent literature to investigate three widespread claims about mtDNA: strict clonal evolution (lack of recombination), selective neutrality, and constant mutation rate. Galtier et al.'s take on clonal evolution provides one of few encouraging findings: although numerous recent studies recover within-species homoplasy that may be interpreted as evidence for recombination, Galtier et al. suggest that this apparent homoplasy may also result from mutational hot-spots.
The suggestion that mtDNA is selectively neutral is an assumption that is most in need of a good thrashing, and Galtier et al. are happy to oblige. After a brief discussion of the powerful evidence for selection and selective sweeps, Galtier et al. provide a nice discussion of both the possible causes for these phenomena and their far-reaching implications. The last paragraph of this section sums things up rather nicely: "Whatever the underlying causes of the patterns [of selection] observed, these studies demonstrate that the withinspecies level of mtDNA diversity per se is not a good marker of population size and species health, as observed both at the metazoa and mammalian levels. Nonequilibrium processes apparently dominate. The classical interpretation of genetic diversity as the product of mutation rate by population size, as expected at mutation-drift equilibrium, is strongly questionable as far as mtDNA data are concerned."
Finally, Galtier et al. provide evidence - primarily from Nabholz et al.'s (2008) recent reviews (1, 2) - that rates of mtDNA evolution are widely variable, both within and among taxa. They conclude suggesting: "The molecular clock, therefore, is certainly not a tenable assumption as far as mtDNA is concerned. Nonclock- like evolution is common, and the departure from homogeneous rates can be very strong."
Conspicuously absent from Galtier et al.'s review is a discussion of the feature of mtDNA that has most challenged recent phylogenetic and phylogeographic studies: introgression. Perhaps Galtier et al. viewed this as a topic already addressed by other reviews, but the mechanisms underling mtDNA introgression remain poorly understood and this topic too would have benefitted from Galtier et al.'s insight.
At the end of the day, Galtier et al. take a rather dire view of mtDNA as a molecular marker, suggesting that its primary value is in its cheapness. Although I have a bit more charitable view, I certaintly hope that Galtier et al.'s review will succeed in opening more eyes to the diversity of problems confronting interpretation of mtDNA.
GALTIER, N., NABHOLZ, B., GLÉMIN, S., & HURST, G. (2009). Mitochondrial DNA as a marker of molecular diversity: a reappraisal Molecular Ecology, 18 (22), 4541-4550 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2009.04380.x