Phytoplasma phylogenetics has focused primarily on sequences of the non-coding 16S rRNA gene and the 16S-23S rRNA intergenic spacer region (16-23S ISR), and primers that enable amplification of these regions from all phytoplasmas by PCR are well established. In this study, primers based on the secA gene have been developed into a semi-nested PCR assay that results in a sequence of the expected size (about 480 bp) from all 34 phytoplasmas examined, including strains representative of 12 16Sr groups. Phylogenetic analysis of secA gene sequences showed similar clustering of phytoplasmas when compared with clusters resolved by similar sequence analyses of a 16-23S ISR-23S rRNA gene contig or of the 16S rRNA gene alone. The main differences between trees were in the branch lengths, which were elongated in the 16-23S ISR-23S rRNA gene tree when compared with the 16S rRNA gene tree and elongated still further in the secA gene tree, despite this being a shorter sequence. The improved resolution in the secA gene-derived phylogenetic tree resulted in the 16SrII group splitting into two distinct clusters, while phytoplasmas associated with coconut lethal yellowing-type diseases split into three distinct groups, thereby supporting past proposals that they represent different candidate species within 'Candidatus Phytoplasma'. The ability to differentiate 16Sr groups and subgroups by virtual RFLP analysis of secA gene sequences suggests that this gene may provide an informative alternative molecular marker for pathogen identification and diagnosis of phytoplasma diseases.
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