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Mol Biol Evol. 1999 Dec;16(12):1774-84.

The phylogeny of land plants inferred from 18S rDNA sequences: pushing the limits of rDNA signal?

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Department of Botany, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-4238, USA.


Previous studies of the phylogeny of land plants based on analysis of 18S ribosomal DNA (rDNA) sequences have generally found weak support for the relationships recovered and at least some obviously spurious relationships, resulting in equivocal inferences of land plant phylogeny. We hypothesized that greater sampling of both characters and taxa would improve inferences of land plant phylogeny based on 18S rDNA sequences. We therefore conducted a phylogenetic analysis of complete (or nearly complete) 18S rDNA sequences for 93 species of land plants and 7 green algal relatives. Parsimony analyses with equal weighting of characters and characters state changes and parsimony analyses weighting (1) stem bases half as much as loop bases and (2) transitions half as much as transversions did not produce substantially different topologies. Although the general structure of the shortest trees is consistent with most hypotheses of land plant phylogeny, several relationships, particularly among major groups of land plants, appear spurious. Increased character and taxon sampling did not substantially improve the performance of 18S rDNA in phylogenetic analyses of land plants, nor did analyses designed to accommodate variation in evolutionary rates among sites. The rate and pattern of 18S rDNA evolution across land plants may limit the usefulness of this gene for phylogeny reconstruction at deep levels of plant phylogeny. We conclude that the mosaic structure of 18S rDNA, consisting of highly conserved and highly variable regions, may contain historical signal at two levels. Rapidly evolving regions are informative for relatively recent divergences (e.g., within angiosperms, seed plants, and ferns), but homoplasy at these sites makes it difficult to resolve relationships among these groups. At deeper levels, changes in the highly conserved regions of small-subunit rDNAs provide signal across all of life. Because constraints imposed by the secondary structure of the rRNA may affect the phylogenetic information content of 18S rDNA, we suggest that 18S rDNA sequences be combined with other data and that methods of analysis be employed to accommodate these differences in evolutionary patterns, particularly across deep divergences in the tree of life.

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