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Open Access Research article

The mitochondrial genome structure of Xenoturbella bocki (phylum Xenoturbellida) is ancestral within the deuterostomes

Sarah J Bourlat1, Omar Rota-Stabelli2, Robert Lanfear23 and Maximilian J Telford2*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Invertebrate Zoology, Swedish Museum of Natural History, Box 50007, SE-104 05 Stockholm, Sweden

2 Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, University College London, Darwin Building, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK

3 Current address: Centre for Macroevolution and Macroecology, School of Biology, Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:107  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-107

Published: 18 May 2009



Mitochondrial genome comparisons contribute in multiple ways when inferring animal relationships. As well as primary sequence data, rare genomic changes such as gene order, shared gene boundaries and genetic code changes, which are unlikely to have arisen through convergent evolution, are useful tools in resolving deep phylogenies. Xenoturbella bocki is a morphologically simple benthic marine worm recently found to belong among the deuterostomes. Here we present analyses comparing the Xenoturbella bocki mitochondrial gene order, genetic code and control region to those of other metazoan groups.


The complete mitochondrial genome sequence of Xenoturbella bocki was determined. The gene order is most similar to that of the chordates and the hemichordates, indicating that this conserved mitochondrial gene order might be ancestral to the deuterostome clade. Using data from all phyla of deuterostomes, we infer the ancestral mitochondrial gene order for this clade. Using inversion and breakpoint analyses of metazoan mitochondrial genomes, we test conflicting hypotheses for the phylogenetic placement of Xenoturbella and find a closer affinity to the hemichordates than to other metazoan groups. Comparative analyses of the control region reveal similarities in the transcription initiation and termination sites and origin of replication of Xenoturbella with those of the vertebrates. Phylogenetic analyses of the mitochondrial sequence indicate a weakly supported placement as a basal deuterostome, a result that may be the effect of compositional bias.


The mitochondrial genome of Xenoturbella bocki has a very conserved gene arrangement in the deuterostome group, strikingly similar to that of the hemichordates and the chordates, and thus to the ancestral deuterostome gene order. Similarity to the hemichordates in particular is suggested by inversion and breakpoint analysis. Finally, while phylogenetic analyses of the mitochondrial sequences support a basal deuterostome placement, support for this decreases with the use of more sophisticated models of sequence evolution.