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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Genome size evolution at the speciation level: The cryptic species complex Brachionus plicatilis (Rotifera)

Claus-Peter Stelzer*, Simone Riss and Peter Stadler

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Austrian Academy of Sciences, Institute for Limnology, 5310-Mondsee, Austria

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:90  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-90

Published: 7 April 2011



Studies on genome size variation in animals are rarely done at lower taxonomic levels, e.g., slightly above/below the species level. Yet, such variation might provide important clues on the tempo and mode of genome size evolution. In this study we used the flow-cytometry method to study the evolution of genome size in the rotifer Brachionus plicatilis, a cryptic species complex consisting of at least 14 closely related species.


We found an unexpectedly high variation in this species complex, with genome sizes ranging approximately seven-fold (haploid '1C' genome sizes: 0.056-0.416 pg). Most of this variation (67%) could be ascribed to the major clades of the species complex, i.e. clades that are well separated according to most species definitions. However, we also found substantial variation (32%) at lower taxonomic levels - within and among genealogical species - and, interestingly, among species pairs that are not completely reproductively isolated. In one genealogical species, called B. 'Austria', we found greatly enlarged genome sizes that could roughly be approximated as multiples of the genomes of its closest relatives, which suggests that whole-genome duplications have occurred early during separation of this lineage. Overall, genome size was significantly correlated to egg size and body size, even though the latter became non-significant after controlling for phylogenetic non-independence.


Our study suggests that substantial genome size variation can build up early during speciation, potentially even among isolated populations. An alternative, but not mutually exclusive interpretation might be that reproductive isolation tends to build up unusually slow in this species complex.