A timetree for phytoplasmas (Mollicutes) with new insights on patterns of evolution and diversification

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The first comprehensive timetree is presented for phytoplasmas, a diverse group of obligate intracellular bacteria restricted to phloem sieve elements of vascular plants and tissues of their hemipteran insect vectors. Maximum likelihood-based phylogenetic analysis of DNA sequence data from the 16S rRNA and methionine aminopeptidase (map) genes yielded well resolved estimates of phylogenetic relationships among major phytoplasma lineages, 16Sr groups and known strains of phytoplasmas. Age estimates for divergences among two major lineages of Mollicutes based on a previous comprehensive bacterial timetree were used to calibrate an initial 16S timetree. A separate timetree was estimated based on the more rapidly-evolving map gene, with an internal calibration based on a recent divergence within two related 16Sr phytoplasma subgroups in group 16SrV thought to have been driven by the introduction of the North American leafhopper vector Scaphoideus titanus Ball into Europe during the early part of the 20th century. Combining the resulting divergence time estimates into a final 16S timetree suggests that evolutionary rates have remained relatively constant overall through the evolution of phytoplasmas and that the origin of this lineage, at ~641 million years ago (Ma), preceded the origin of land plants and hemipteran insects. Nevertheless, the crown group of phytoplasmas is estimated to have begun diversifying ~316 Ma, roughly coinciding with the origin of seed plants and Hemiptera. Some phytoplasma groups apparently associated with particular plant families or insect vector lineages generally arose more recently than their respective hosts and vectors, suggesting that vector-mediated host shifts have been an important mechanism in the evolutionary diversification of phytoplasmas. Further progress in understanding macroevolutionary patterns in phytoplasmas is hindered by large gaps in knowledge of the identity of competent vectors and lack of data on phytoplasma associations with non-economically important plants.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number106826
JournalMolecular Phylogenetics and Evolution
StatePublished - Aug 2020


  • 16S rRNA
  • Bacteria
  • Divergence time
  • Hemiptera
  • Map gene
  • Plant pathogen

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics


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