While effective population size (N e) and life history traits such as generation time are known to impact substitution rates, their potential effects on base composition evolution are less well understood. GC content increases with decreasing body mass in mammals, consistent with recombination-associated GC biased gene conversion (gBGC) more strongly impacting these lineages. However, shifts in chromosomal architecture and recombination landscapes between species may complicate the interpretation of these results. In birds, interchromosomal rearrangements are rare and the recombination landscape is conserved, suggesting that this group is well suited to assess the impact of life history on base composition.
Employing data from 45 newly and 3 previously sequenced avian genomes covering a broad range of taxa, we found that lineages with large populations and short generations exhibit higher GC content. The effect extends to both coding and non-coding sites, indicating that it is not due to selection on codon usage. Consistent with recombination driving base composition, GC content and heterogeneity were positively correlated with the rate of recombination. Moreover, we observed ongoing increases in GC in the majority of lineages.
Our results provide evidence that gBGC may drive patterns of nucleotide composition in avian genomes and are consistent with more effective gBGC in large populations and a greater number of meioses per unit time; that is, a shorter generation time. Thus, in accord with theoretical predictions, base composition evolution is substantially modulated by species life history.