Some Morphologically Distinguishable Hypotrich Ciliates Share Identical 18S rRNA Gene Sequences: Taxonomic Insights from a Case Study on Oxytricha Species (Protista, Ciliophora)

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Modern taxonomic studies of ciliated protozoa require both morphological and molecular data. One dilemma is how to distinguish morphologically similar species with few nucleotide differences in the widely used marker, the 18S rRNA gene. In the present study, two Oxytricha species were morphologically documented using light and electron microscopy. The mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase subunit I (COI) gene and a fragment of the rRNA gene covering the 18S-ITS1-5.8S-ITS2-28S rRNA gene regions were sequenced. Phylogenetic analyses of all available Oxytricha granulifera-related populations were performed to reveal the internal relationships of this group. We described a new species, Oxytricha atypica sp. nov., distinguished from its congeners by having seven postoral ventral cirri resulting from the additional fragmentation of anlage V during ontogenesis. Although their 18S rRNA genes differ by only one nucleotide, divergence of the COI gene is as high as 11.8% between O. atypica and the closely related species, O. granulifera. All but one of the COI nucleotide substitutions were synonymous. We documented the highly conserved nature of the 18S rRNA gene in the morphospecies of Oxytricha. Based on these findings, we speculate that O. granulifera contains cryptic species or morphospecies needing further characterization, and new insights for the taxonomy of hypotrich ciliates are also discussed.


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