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PeerJ. 2019 Jun 25;7:e7178. doi: 10.7717/peerj.7178. eCollection 2019.

Multi-gene incongruence consistent with hybridisation in Cladocopium (Symbiodiniaceae), an ecologically important genus of coral reef symbionts.

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School of Biological Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand.


Coral reefs rely on their intracellular dinoflagellate symbionts (family Symbiodiniaceae) for nutritional provision in nutrient-poor waters, yet this association is threatened by thermally stressful conditions. Despite this, the evolutionary potential of these symbionts remains poorly characterised. In this study, we tested the potential for divergent Symbiodiniaceae types to sexually reproduce (i.e. hybridise) within Cladocopium, the most ecologically prevalent genus in this family. With sequence data from three organelles (cob gene, mitochondrion; psbAncr region, chloroplast; and ITS2 region, nucleus), we utilised the Incongruence Length Difference test, Approximately Unbiased test, tree hybridisation analyses and visual inspection of raw data in stepwise fashion to highlight incongruences between organelles, and thus provide evidence of reticulate evolution. Using this approach, we identified three putative hybrid Cladocopium samples among the 158 analysed, at two of the seven sites sampled. These samples were identified as the common Cladocopium types C40 or C1 with respect to the mitochondria and chloroplasts, but the rarer types C3z, C3u and C1# with respect to their nuclear identity. These five Cladocopium types have previously been confirmed as evolutionarily distinct and were also recovered in non-incongruent samples multiple times, which is strongly suggestive that they sexually reproduced to produce the incongruent samples. A concomitant inspection of next generation sequencing data for these samples suggests that other plausible explanations, such as incomplete lineage sorting or the presence of co-dominance, are much less likely. The approach taken in this study allows incongruences between gene regions to be identified with confidence, and brings new light to the evolutionary potential within Symbiodiniaceae.


Approximately unbiased test; Cladocopium; Hybridisation; Incomplete lineage sorting; Incongruence length difference test; Next generation sequencing; Symbiodinium; Symbiont

Conflict of interest statement

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

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