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J Eukaryot Microbiol. 2017 Nov;64(6):729-739. doi: 10.1111/jeu.12406. Epub 2017 Mar 28.

Genetic Determinism vs. Phenotypic Plasticity in Protist Morphology.

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Laboratory of Soil Biodiversity, University of Neuchatel, Rue Emile-Argand 11, Neuchatel, 2000, Switzerland.
EPEP - UMR 7144, CNRS - UPMC Roscoff Biological Station, Place Georges Teissier, 29680, Roscoff, France.
Laboratory of Wetland Ecology and Monitoring & Department of Biogeography and Paleoecology, Adam Mickiewicz University, Krygowskiego 10, Poznan, 61-680, Poland.
Institute of Plant Sciences and Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Bern, Altenbergrain 21, CH-3013, Bern, Switzerland.
Laboratory of Evolutionary Protistology, Institute of Biosciences, University of Sao Paulo, Matao Travessa 14 Cidade Universitaria, Sao Paulo, 05508-090, SP, Brazil.
Biology Center (Institute of Parasitology), Czech Academy of Sciences, Branišovská 1160/31, 37005, České Budějovice, Czech Republic.
Ecology and Biodiversity Group, Faculty of Science, Utrecht University, Padualaan 8, Utrecht, 3585 CH, The Netherlands.
Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Ecological Systems Laboratory, Lausanne, CH-1015, Switzerland.
WSL Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, Site Lausanne, Lausanne, CH-1015, Switzerland.
Environment, University of York, York, YO105DD, United Kingdom.
Department of Zoology and Ecology, Penza State University, Krasnaya street 40, 440026, Penza, Russia.
Jardin Botanique de Neuchatel, Chemin du Perthuis-du-Sault 58, Neuchatel, 2000, Switzerland.


Untangling the relationships between morphology and phylogeny is key to building a reliable taxonomy, but is especially challenging for protists, where the existence of cryptic or pseudocryptic species makes finding relevant discriminant traits difficult. Here we use Hyalosphenia papilio (a testate amoeba) as a model species to investigate the contribution of phylogeny and phenotypic plasticity in its morphology. We study the response of H. papilio morphology (shape and pores number) to environmental variables in (i) a manipulative experiment with controlled conditions (water level), (ii) an observational study of a within-site natural ecological gradient (water level), and (iii) an observational study across 37 European peatlands (climate). We showed that H. papilio morphology is correlated to environmental conditions (climate and water depth) as well as geography, while no relationship between morphology and phylogeny was brought to light. The relative contribution of genetic inheritance and phenotypic plasticity in shaping morphology varies depending on the taxonomic group and the trait under consideration. Thus, our data call for a reassessment of taxonomy based on morphology alone. This clearly calls for a substantial increase in taxonomic research on these globally still under-studied organisms leading to a reassessment of estimates of global microbial eukaryotic diversity.


Body size; protozoa; soil moisture; testate amoebae; water table depth

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