Evolution of ITS ribosomal RNA secondary structures in fungal and algal symbionts of selected species of Cladonia sect. Cladonia (Cladoniaceae, Ascomycotina)

Sara Beiggi, Michele D Piercey-Normore
Journal of Molecular Evolution 2007, 64 (5): 528-42
Evolutionary studies in lichen associations follow that of the fungal symbiont (mycobiont), which is the symbiont after which the lichen is named and forms the majority of the thallus. However, evolution of the algal partner (photobiont) is important to maintain compatibility between symbionts and to optimize productivity of the lichen association. The internal transcribed spacer (ITS) regions of the nuclear ribosomal DNA (rDNA) were examined for primary DNA sequence patterns and for patterns in the secondary structure of the rRNA transcripts in both symbionts of the genus Cladonia. Fungal and algal symbionts show opposite trends in rates of evolution and fragment lengths. Both symbionts showed stronger conservation of the ITS2 structure than the ITS1 structure. Homology was evident in the secondary structures between the two highly divergent chlorophyte and ascomycete taxonomic groups. Most fungal species and all species complexes were polyphyletic. The ITS rDNA of the natural lichen algae from Manitoba and four known algal species is highly similar. The natural lichen algae segregate into highly supported clades by environmental features, suggesting that algae that are already adapted to the environment may associate with germinating fungal propagules in the genus Cladonia. Fungal plasticity may allow the mycobiont to adapt to the environment of the photobiont producing variation in lichen morphology. This might explain the incongruence of phylogenetic patterns between the algal and fungal partners tested and the polyphyly of the fungal species.

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