Plastid genome evolution across the genus Cuscuta (Convolvulaceae): two clades within subgenus Grammica exhibit extensive gene loss
The genus Cuscuta (Convolvulaceae, the morning glory family) is one of the most intensely studied lineages of parasitic plants. Whole plastome sequencing of four Cuscuta species has demonstrated changes to both plastid gene content and structure. The presence of photosynthetic genes under purifying selection indicates that Cuscuta is cryptically photosynthetic. However, the tempo and mode of plastid genome evolution across the diversity of this group (~200 species) remain largely unknown. A comparative investigation of plastid genome content, grounded within a phylogenetic framework, was conducted using a slot-blot Southern hybridization approach. Cuscuta was extensively sampled (~56% of species), including groups previously suggested to possess more altered plastomes compared with other members of this genus. A total of 56 probes derived from all categories of protein-coding genes, typically found within the plastomes of flowering plants, were used. The results indicate that two clades within subgenus Grammica (clades ‘O’ and ‘K’) exhibit substantially more plastid gene loss relative to other members of Cuscuta. All surveyed members of the ‘O’ clade show extensive losses of plastid genes from every category of genes typically found in the plastome, including otherwise highly conserved small and large ribosomal subunits. The extent of plastid gene losses within this clade is similar in magnitude to that observed previously in some non-asterid holoparasites, in which the very presence of a plastome has been questioned. The ‘K’ clade also exhibits considerable loss of plastid genes. Unlike in the ‘O’ clade, in which all species seem to be affected, the losses in clade ‘K’ progress phylogenetically, following a pattern consistent with the Evolutionary Transition Series hypothesis. This clade presents an ideal opportunity to study the reduction of the plastome of parasites ‘in action’. The widespread plastid gene loss in these two clades is hypothesized to be a consequence of the complete loss of photosynthesis. Additionally, taxa that would be the best candidates for entire plastome sequencing are identified in order to investigate further the loss of photosynthesis and reduction of the plastome within Cuscuta.