Mitochondrial DNA control region polymorphisms: genetic markers for ecological studies of marine turtles


  • This research was conducted by J. Norman as part of a broader study on the conservation genetics of green turtles while a PhD student at the University of Queensland. Craig Moritz and Colin Limpus have embarked on a collaborative study of marine turtles combining genetic analyses with a long-term study of population ecology.

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We describe a rapid and sensitive method for the detection of population-specific genetic markers in mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and the use of such markers to analyse population structure of marine turtles. A series of oligonucleotide primers specific for the amplification of the mtDNA control region in Cheloniid turtles were designed from preliminary sequence data. Using two of these primers, a 384–385-bp sequence was amplified from the 5′ portion of the mtDNA control region of 15 green turtles Chelonia mydas from 12 different Indo-Pacific rookeries. Fourteen of the 15 individuals, including some with identical whole-genome restriction fragment patterns, had sequences that differed by one or more base substitutions. Analysis of sequence variation among individuals identified a total of 41 nucleotide substitutions and a 1-bp insertion/deletion. Comparison with evidence from whole-genome restriction enzyme analysis of the same individuals indicated that this portion of the control region is evolving approximately eight times faster than the average rate and that the sequence analysis detected approximately one fifth of the total variation present in the genome. Restriction enzyme analysis of amplified products from an additional 256 individuals revealed significant geographic structuring in the distribution of mtDNA genotypes among five of the 10 rookeries surveyed extensively. Additional geographic structuring of genotypes was identified through denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE) of amplified products. Only two of the 10 rookeries surveyed could not be differentiated, indicating that the Indo-Pacific C. mydas include a number of genetically differentiated populations, with minimal female-mediated gene flow among them. Important applications for genetic markers in the conservation and management of marine turtles include the identification of appropriate demographic units for research and management (i.e. genetically discrete populations) and assessment of the composition of feeding and harvested populations.