Enzymatic amplification of homologous regions of DNA using ‘universal’ polymerase chain reaction primers has provided insight into insect systematics, phylogeography, molecular evolution and species identification. One of the more commonly amplified and sequenced regions is a short region of the cytochrome c oxidase subunit I gene (COI), commonly called the barcoding region. COI is one of three mitochondrial-encoded subunits of complex IV (Cox) of the electron transport chain. In addition to the mitochondrial subunits there are nine nuclear-encoded subunits of the complex in Drosophila. Whereas a number of phylogenetic biases associated with this region have been examined and the quaternary structure of Cox has been modelled, the influence of protein–protein interactions on the observed patterns of evolution in this barcoding region of insects has never been examined critically. Using a well-resolved independently derived phylogeny of 38 Diptera species, we examined the homogeneity of the substitution processes within the barcoding region. We show that, within Diptera, amino acid residues interacting with nuclear-encoded subunits of Cox are evolving at elevated rates across the phylogeny. Furthermore, we show that codon position two is biased by protein–protein interactions. In contrast, third codon positions provide a less biased estimate of genetic variation in the region. This study highlights the need to examine the potential for systematic bias in DNA barcoding regions as part of the critical assessment of evidence in systematics and in biodiversity assessments.