Human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is a non-recombining genome that codes for 13 subunits of the mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation system, 2 rRNAs, and 22 tRNAs. Mutations have accumulated sequentially in mtDNA lineages that diverged tens of thousands of years ago. The genes in mtDNA are subject to different functional constraints and are therefore expected to evolve at different rates, but the rank order of these rates should be the same in all lineages of a phylogeny. Previous studies have indicated, however, that specific regions of mtDNA may have experienced different histories of selection in different lineages, possibly because of lineage-specific interactions or environmental factors such as climate. We report here on a survey for lineage-specific patterns of nucleotide polymorphism in human mtDNA. We calculated molecular polymorphism indices and neutrality tests for classes of functional sites and genes in 837 human mtDNA sequences, compared the results between continent-specific mtDNA lineages, and used two sliding window methods to identify differences in the patterns of polymorphism between haplogroups. A general correlation between nucleotide position and the level of nucleotide polymorphism was identified in the coding region of the mitochondrial genome. Nucleotide diversity in the protein-coding sequence of mtDNA was generally not much higher than that found for many genes in nuclear DNA. A comparison of nonsynonymous/synonymous rate ratios in the 13 protein-coding genes suggested differences in the relative levels of selection between haplogroups, including the European haplogroup clusters.Interestingly, a segment of the MTND5 gene was found to be almost void of segregating sites and nonsynonymous mutations in haplogroup J, which has been associated with susceptibility to certain complex diseases. Our results suggest that there are haplogroup-specific differences in the intensity of selection against particular regions of the mitochondrial genome, indicating that some mutations may be non-neutral within specific phylogenetic lineages but neutral within others.
There’s also a good review at John Hawkes about another study into natural selection on human mtDNA, which is pretty thorough. Essentially, climate seems to be a big factor, L haplotypes don’t seem to do well in a cool climate. This would allow for a scenario where multiple L haplotypes could have moved ‘out of Africa, and at different times, but just got selected out by better adapted haplotypes.