Background: Complete mitochondrial (mt) genomes have been sequenced for thousands of animals and represent a molecule of choice for many evolutionary studies. Nevertheless, some animal groups have remained under-sampled. Ctenophora (comb jellies) is one such example, with only two complete mt sequences determined hitherto for this phylum, which encompasses ca. 150-200 described species. This lack of data derives from the extremely fast mt evolutionary rate in this lineage, complicating primer design and DNA amplification. Indeed, in the two ctenophore mt genomes sequenced to date, i.e. those of Mnemiopsis leidyi (order Lobata) and Pleurobrachia bachei (order Cydippida), both rRNA and protein coding genes exhibit an extraordinary size reduction and have highly derived sequences. Additionally, all tRNAs, and the atp6 and atp8 genes are absent. In order to determine whether these characteristics are shared by other ctenophores, we obtained the complete mt genomes of three benthic ctenophores belonging to the so far unsampled order of Platyctenida: Coeloplana loyai, Coeloplana yulianicorum and Vallicula multiformis. Results: The mt genomes of benthic ctenophores reveal the same peculiarities found in Mnemiopsis and Pleurobrachia, demonstrating that the fast evolutionary rate is a general trait of the ctenophore mt genomes. Our results also indicate that this high evolutionary rate not only affects the nucleotide substitution but also gene rearrangements. Indeed, gene order was highly rearranged among representatives of the different taxonomic orders in which it was close to random, but also quite variable within Platyctenida, in which the genera Coeloplana and Vallicula share only four conserved synteny blocks. However, the two congeneric Coeloplana species display exactly the same gene order. Because of the extreme evolutionary rate, our phylogenetic analyses were unable to resolve the phylogenetic position of ctenophores within metazoans or the relationships among the different Ctenophora orders. Comparative sequence-analyses allowed us to correct the annotation of the Pleurobrachia mt genome, confirming the absence of tRNAs, the presence of both rRNA genes, and the existence of a reassignment of codon TGA from tryptophan to serine for this species. Conclusions: Since Platyctenida is an early diverging lineage among Ctenophora, our findings suggest that the mt traits described above are ancestral characteristics of this phylum.
- Extreme evolutionary rate
- Gene loss