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Post-Miocene expansion, colonization, and host switching drove speciation among extant nematodes of the archaic genus Trichinella.

Parasitic nematodes of the genus Trichinella cause significant food-borne illness and occupy a unique evolutionary position at the base of the phylum Nematoda, unlike the free-living nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. Although the forthcoming genome sequence of Trichinella spiralis can provide invaluable comparative information about nematode biology, a basic framework for understanding the history of the genus Trichinella is needed to maximize its utility. We therefore developed the first robust and comprehensive analysis of the phylogeny and biogeographic history of Trichinella using the variation in three genes (nuclear small-subunit rDNA, and second internal transcribed spacer, mitochondrial large-subunit rDNA, and cytochrome oxidase I DNA) from all 11 recognized taxa. We conclude that (i) although Trichinellidae may have diverged from their closest extant relatives during the Paleozoic, all contemporary species of Trichinella diversified within the last 20 million years through geographic colonization and pervasive host switching among foraging guilds of obligate carnivores; (ii) mammalian carnivores disseminated encapsulated forms from Eurasia to Africa during the late Miocene and Pliocene, and to the Nearctic across the Bering Land Bridge during the Pliocene and Pleistocene, when crown species ultimately diversified; (iii) the greatest risk to human health is posed by those species retaining an ancestral capacity to parasitize a wide range of hosts; and (iv) early hominids may have first acquired Trichinella on the African savannah several million years before swine domestication as their diets shifted from herbivory to facultative carnivory.

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