Guanine plus cytosine (GC) content ranges broadly among bacterial genomes. In this study, we explore the use of a Brownian-motion model for the evolution of GC content over time. This model assumes that GC content varies over time in a continuous and homogeneous manner. Using this model and a maximum-likelihood approach, we analyzed the evolution of GC content across several bacterial phylogenies. Using three independent tests, we found that the observed divergence in GC content was consistent with a homogeneous Brownian-motion model. For example, similar rates of GC content evolution were inferred in several different bacterial subclades, indicating that there is relatively little rate heterogeneity in GC content evolution over broad evolutionary time scales. We thus argue that the homogeneous Brownian-motion model provides a good working model for GC content evolution. We then use this model to determine the overall rate of GC content evolution among eubacteria. We also determine the time frame over which GC content remains similar in related taxa, using a flexible definition for “similarity” in GC content so that, depending on the context, more or less stringent criteria may be applied. Our results have implications for models of sequence evolution, including those used for phylogenetic reconstruction and for inferring unusual changes in GC content.
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Vol. 57 • No. 8