Open Access Research article

The model marine diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana likely descended from a freshwater ancestor in the genus Cyclotella

Andrew J Alverson1*, Bánk Beszteri2, Matthew L Julius3 and Edward C Theriot4

Author Affiliations

1 Indiana University, Department of Biology, 1001 East Third Street, Bloomington, IN 47405, USA

2 Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Am Handelshafen 12, 27570 Bremerhaven, Germany

3 St. Cloud State University, Department of Biological Sciences, 720 Fourth Avenue South, St. Cloud, MN 56301, USA

4 The University of Texas at Austin, Texas Natural Science Center, 2400 Trinity Street, Austin, TX 78705, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:125  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-125

Published: 14 May 2011



Publication of the first diatom genome, that of Thalassiosira pseudonana, established it as a model species for experimental and genomic studies of diatoms. Virtually every ensuing study has treated T. pseudonana as a marine diatom, with genomic and experimental data valued for their insights into the ecology and evolution of diatoms in the world's oceans.


The natural distribution of T. pseudonana spans both marine and fresh waters, and phylogenetic analyses of morphological and molecular datasets show that, 1) T. pseudonana marks an early divergence in a major freshwater radiation by diatoms, and 2) as a species, T. pseudonana is likely ancestrally freshwater. Marine strains therefore represent recent recolonizations of higher salinity habitats. In addition, the combination of a relatively nondescript form and a convoluted taxonomic history has introduced some confusion about the identity of T. pseudonana and, by extension, its phylogeny and ecology. We resolve these issues and use phylogenetic criteria to show that T. pseudonana is more appropriately classified by its original name, Cyclotella nana. Cyclotella contains a mix of marine and freshwater species and so more accurately conveys the complexities of the phylogenetic and natural histories of T. pseudonana.


The multitude of physical barriers that likely must be overcome for diatoms to successfully colonize freshwaters suggests that the physiological traits of T. pseudonana, and the genes underlying those traits, might differ from those of strictly marine diatoms. The freshwater ancestry of T. pseudonana might therefore confound generalizations about the physiological and metabolic properties of marine diatoms. The freshwater component of T. pseudonana's history merits careful consideration in the interpretation of experimental data collected for this important model species.

Cyclotella nana; diatom; freshwater; marine; model species; Thalassiosira pseudonana