Molecular Phylogenetic Insights Into the Evolution of Octocorallia: A Review

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Biology (HMC)

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The anthozoan sub-class Octocorallia, comprising approximately 3000 species of soft corals, gorgonians, and sea pens, remains one of the most poorly understood groups of the phylum Cnidaria. Efforts to classify the soft corals and gorgonians at the suprafamilial level have long thwarted taxonomists, and the subordinal groups in current use are widely recognized to represent grades of colony forms rather than clades. Molecular phylogenetic analyses of the sub-class do not support either the current morphologically based subordinal or familial-level taxonomy. To date, however, the resolution necessary to propose an alternative, phylogenetic classification of Octocorallia or to elucidate patterns of morphological evolution within the group is lacking. Attempts to understand boundaries between species and interspecific or intraspecific phylogenetic relationships have been hampered by the very slow rate of mitochondrial gene evolution in Octocorallia, and a consequent dearth of molecular markers with variation sufficient to distinguish species (or sometimes genera). A review of the available ITS2 sequence data for octocorals, however, reveals a yet-unexplored phylogenetic signal both at sequence and secondary-structure levels. In addition, incongruence between mitochondrial and nuclear gene trees suggests that hybrid speciation and reticulate evolution may be an important mechanism of diversification in some genera. Emerging next-generation genomic-sequencing technologies offer the best hope for a breakthrough in our understanding of phylogenetic relationships and of evolution of morphological traits in Octocorallia. Genome and transcriptome sequencing may provide enough characters to resolve relationships at the deepest levels of the octocoral tree, while simultaneously offering an efficient means to screen for new genetic markers variable enough to distinguish species and populations.

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© 2010 Oxford University Press