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A close-up view on ITS2 evolution and speciation - a case study in the Ulvophyceae (Chlorophyta, Viridiplantae)

Lenka Caisová123*, Birger Marin1 and Michael Melkonian1

Author affiliations

1 Universität zu Köln, Biozentrum Köln, Botanisches Institut, Zülpicher Str. 47b, 50674 Köln, Germany

2 Current Address: Institute of Botany v.v.i., Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Dukelská 135, 379 82 Třeboň, Czech Republic, CZ

3 Current Address: University of South Bohemia, Faculty of Science, Branišovská 31, 370 05 České Budějovice, Czech Republic, CZ

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:262  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-262

Published: 20 September 2011



The second Internal Transcriber Spacer (ITS2) is a fast evolving part of the nuclear-encoded rRNA operon located between the 5.8S and 28S rRNA genes. Based on crossing experiments it has been proposed that even a single Compensatory Base Change (CBC) in helices 2 and 3 of the ITS2 indicates sexual incompatibility and thus separates biological species. Taxa without any CBC in these ITS2 regions were designated as a 'CBC clade'. However, in depth comparative analyses of ITS2 secondary structures, ITS2 phylogeny, the origin of CBCs, and their relationship to biological species have rarely been performed. To gain 'close-up' insights into ITS2 evolution, (1) 86 sequences of ITS2 including secondary structures have been investigated in the green algal order Ulvales (Chlorophyta, Viridiplantae), (2) after recording all existing substitutions, CBCs and hemi-CBCs (hCBCs) were mapped upon the ITS2 phylogeny, rather than merely comparing ITS2 characters among pairs of taxa, and (3) the relation between CBCs, hCBCs, CBC clades, and the taxonomic level of organisms was investigated in detail.


High sequence and length conservation allowed the generation of an ITS2 consensus secondary structure, and introduction of a novel numbering system of ITS2 nucleotides and base pairs. Alignments and analyses were based on this structural information, leading to the following results: (1) in the Ulvales, the presence of a CBC is not linked to any particular taxonomic level, (2) most CBC 'clades' sensu Coleman are paraphyletic, and should rather be termed CBC grades. (3) the phenetic approach of pairwise comparison of sequences can be misleading, and thus, CBCs/hCBCs must be investigated in their evolutionary context, including homoplasy events (4) CBCs and hCBCs in ITS2 helices evolved independently, and we found no evidence for a CBC that originated via a two-fold hCBC substitution.


Our case study revealed several discrepancies between ITS2 evolution in the Ulvales and generally accepted assumptions underlying ITS2 evolution as e.g. the CBC clade concept. Therefore, we developed a suite of methods providing a critical 'close-up' view into ITS2 evolution by directly tracing the evolutionary history of individual positions, and we caution against a non-critical use of the ITS2 CBC clade concept for species delimitation.