Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is a widely employed molecular tool in phylogeography, in the inference of human evolutionary history, in dating the domestication of livestock and in forensic science. In humans and other vertebrates the popularity of mtDNA can be partially attributed to an assumption of strict maternal inheritance, such that there is no recombination between mitochondrial lineages. The recent demonstration that linkage disequilibrium (LD) declines as a function of distance between polymorphic sites in hominid mitochondrial genomes has been interpreted as evidence of recombination between mtDNA haplotypes, and hence nonclonal inheritance. However, critics of mtDNA recombination have suggested that this association is an artefact of an inappropriate measure of LD or of sequencing error, and subsequent studies of other populations have failed to replicate the initial finding. Here we report the analysis of 16 ruminant populations and present evidence that LD significantly declines with distance in five of them. A meta-analysis of the data indicates a nonsignificant trend of LD declining with distance. Most of the earlier criticisms of patterns between LD and distance in hominid mtDNA are not applicable to this data set. Our results suggest that either ruminant mtDNA is not strictly clonal or that compensatory selection has influenced patterns of variation at closely linked sites within the mitochondrial control region. The potential impact of these processes should be considered when using mtDNA as a tool in vertebrate population genetic, phylogenetic and forensic studies.
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