Loss of all plastid ndh genes in Gnetales and conifers: extent and evolutionary significance for the seed plant phylogeny
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The exact phylogenetic position of Gnetales, a small, highly modified group of gymnosperms with an accelerated rate of molecular evolution, is one of the most challenging issues for seed plant systematics. Recent results from entire plastid genome (ptDNA) sequencing revealed the absence of the entire suite of plastid ndh genes in several species of Gnetales and the pine family (Pinaceae) potentially highlighting a major structural feature linking these two groups—concerted loss of all plastid genes for the NADH dehydrogenase complex. However, the precise extent of ndh gene loss in gymnosperms has not been surveyed. Using a slot-blot hybridization method, we probed all 11 ndh genes in 162 species from 70 of 85 gymnosperm genera. We find that all ndh genes are absent across Gnetales and Pinaceae, but not in any other group of gymnosperms. This feature represents either a major synapomorphy for a clade consisting of these two lineages or, less likely, a convergent loss. Our survey substantially extends previous inferences based on more limited sampling and, if the former evolutionary interpretation is correct, it provides additional support for the contentious “gnepine” hypothesis, which places Gnetales as sister to Pinaceae.