This study provides a phylogenetic/comparative approach to deciphering the processes underlying the evolution of plastid rRNA genes in genomes under relaxed functional constraints. Nonphotosynthetic green algal taxa that belong to two distinct classes, Chlorophyceae (Polytoma) and Trebouxiophyceae (Prototheca), were investigated. Similar to the situation described previously for plastid 16S rRNA genes in nonphotosynthetic land plants, nucleotide substitution levels, extent of structural variations, and percentage AT values are increased in nonphotosynthetic green algae compared to their closest photosynthetic relatives. However, the mutational processes appear to be different in many respects. First, with the increase in AT content, more transversions are noted in Polytoma and holoparasite angiosperms, while more transitions characterize the evolution of the 16S rDNA sequences in Prototheca. Second, although structural variations do accumulate in both Polytoma and Prototheca (as well as holoparasitic plastid 16S rRNAs), insertions as large as 1.6 kb characterize the plastid 16S rRNA genes in the former, whereas significantly smaller indels (not exceeding 24 bp) seem to be more prevalent in the latter group. The differences in evolutionary rates and patterns within and between lineages might be due to mutations in replication/repair-related genes; slipped-strand mispairing is likely the mechanism responsible for the expansion of insertions in Polytoma plastid 16S rRNA genes.
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