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Open Access Research article

Mitochondrial heteroplasmy and DNA barcoding in Hawaiian Hylaeus (Nesoprosopis) bees (Hymenoptera: Colletidae)

Karl N Magnacca12* and Mark JF Brown13

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Zoology, School of Natural Sciences, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin 2, Ireland

2 Current address: Department of Biology, University of Hawai'i, 200 W. Kawili St., Hilo HI 96720, USA

3 School of Biological Sciences, Royal Holloway University of London, Egham, Surrey, TW20 0EX, UK

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:174  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-174

Published: 11 June 2010



The past several years have seen a flurry of papers seeking to clarify the utility and limits of DNA barcoding, particularly in areas such as species discovery and paralogy due to nuclear pseudogenes. Heteroplasmy, the coexistence of multiple mitochondrial haplotypes in a single organism, has been cited as a potentially serious problem for DNA barcoding but its effect on identification accuracy has not been tested. In addition, few studies of barcoding have tested a large group of closely-related species with a well-established morphological taxonomy. In this study we examine both of these issues, by densely sampling the Hawaiian Hylaeus bee radiation.


Individuals from 21 of the 49 a priori morphologically-defined species exhibited coding sequence heteroplasmy at levels of 1-6% or more. All homoplasmic species were successfully identified by COI using standard methods of analysis, but only 71% of heteroplasmic species. The success rate in identifying heteroplasmic species was increased to 86% by treating polymorphisms as character states rather than ambiguities. Nuclear pseudogenes (numts) were also present in four species, and were distinguishable from heteroplasmic sequences by patterns of nucleotide and amino acid change.


Heteroplasmy significantly decreased the reliability of species identification. In addition, the practical issue of dealing with large numbers of polymorphisms- and resulting increased time and labor required - makes the development of DNA barcode databases considerably more complex than has previously been suggested. The impact of heteroplasmy on the utility of DNA barcoding as a bulk specimen identification tool will depend upon its frequency across populations, which remains unknown. However, DNA barcoding is still likely to remain an important identification tool for those species that are difficult or impossible to identify through morphology, as is the case for the ecologically important solitary bee fauna.