Phenotypically different microalgal morphospecies with identical ribosomal DNA: a case of rapid adaptive evolution? Academic Article uri icon


  • The agents driving the divergence and speciation of free-living microbial populations are still largely unknown. We investigated the dinoflagellate morphospecies Scrippsiella hangoei and Peridinium aciculiferum, which abound in the Baltic Sea and in northern temperate lakes, respectively. Electron microscopy analyses showed significant interspecific differences in the external cellular morphology, but a similar plate pattern in the characteristic dinoflagellate armor. Experimentally, S. hangoei grew in a wide range of salinities (0-30), whereas P. aciculiferum only grew in low salinities (0-3). Despite these phenotypic differences and the habitat segregation, molecular analyses showed identical ribosomal DNA sequences (ITS1, ITS2, 5.8S, SSU, and partial LSU) for both morphospecies. Yet, a strong interspecific genetic isolation was indicated by amplified fragment length polymorphism (F (ST) = 0.76) and cytochrome b (cob) sequence divergence ( approximately 1.90%). Phylogenetic reconstructions based on ribosomal (SSU, LSU) and mitochondrial (cob) DNA indicated a recent marine ancestor for P. aciculiferum. In conclusion, we suggest that the lacustrine P. aciculiferum and the marine-brackish S. hangoei diverged very recently, after a marine-freshwater transition that exposed the ancestral populations to different selective pressures. This hypothetical scenario agrees with mounting data indicating a significant role of natural selection in the divergence of free-living microbes, despite their virtually unrestricted dispersal capabilities. Finally, our results indicate that identical ITS rDNA sequences do not necessarily imply the same microbial species, as commonly assumed.

publication date

  • May 2007