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Molecular phylogeny, recent radiation and evolution of gross morphology of the rhubarb genus Rheum (Polygonaceae) inferred from chloroplast DNA trnL-F sequences

Wang, A., Yang, M., Liu, J.
Annals of botany 2005 v.96 no.3 pp. 489-498
radiation injury, chloroplast DNA, plant taxonomy, phylogeny, mutagenesis, hybridization, Rheum, nucleotide sequences, DNA fingerprinting, genetic variation, plant morphology, China
BACKGROUND AND AIMS: Rheum, a highly diversified genus with about 60 species, is mainly confined to the mountainous and desert regions of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau and adjacent areas. This genus represents a good example of the extensive diversification of the temperate genera in the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, in which the forces to drive diversification remain unknown. To date, the infrageneric classification of Rheum has been mainly based on morphological characters. However, it may have been subject to convergent evolution under habitat pressure, and the systematic position of some sections are unclear, especially Sect. Globulosa, which has globular inflorescences, and Sect. Nobilia, which has semi-translucent bracts. Recent palynological research has found substantial contradictions between exine patterns and the current classification of Rheum. Two specific objectives of this research were (1) to evaluate possible relationships of some ambiguous sections with a unique morphology, and (2) to examine possible occurrence of the radiative speciation with low genetic divergence across the total genus and the correlation between the extensive diversification time of Rheum and past geographical events, especially the recent large-scale uplifts of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. METHODS: The chloroplast DNA trnL-F region of 29 individuals representing 26 species of Rheum, belonging to seven out of eight sections, was sequenced and compared. The phylogenetic relationships were further constructed based on the sequences obtained. KEY RESULTS: Despite the highly diversified morphology, the genetic variation in this DNA fragment is relatively low. The molecular phylogeny is highly inconsistent with gross morphology, pollen exine patterns and traditional classifications, except for identifying all samples of Sect. Palmata, three species of Sect. Spiciformia and a few species of Sect. Rheum as corresponding monophyletic groups. The monotypic Sect. Globulosa showed a tentative position within the clade comprising five species of Sect. Rheum. All of the analyses revealed the paraphyly of R. nobile and R. alexandrae, the only two species of Sect. Nobilia circumscribed by the possession of large bracts. The crude calibration of lineages based on trnL-F sequence differentiation implied an extensive diversification of Rheum within approx. 7 million years. CONCLUSIONS: Based on these results, it is suggested that the rich geological and ecological diversity caused by the recent large-scale uplifts of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau since the late Tertiary, coupled with the oscillating climate of the Quaternary stage, might have promoted rapid speciation in small and isolated populations, as well as allowing the fixation of unique or rare morphological characters in Rheum. Such a rapid radiation, combined with introgressive hybridization and reticulate evolution, may have caused the transfer of cpDNA haplotypes between morphologically dissimilar species, and might account for the inconsistency between morphological classification and molecular phylogeny reported here.