Mobile group I introns sometimes contain an open reading frame (ORF) possibly encoding a site-specific DNA endonuclease. However, previous phylogenetic studies have not clearly deduced the evolutionary roles of the group I intron ORFs. In this paper, we examined the phylogeny of group IA2 introns inserted in the position identical to that of the chloroplast-encoded rbcL coding region (rbcL-462 introns) and their ORFs from 13 strains of five genera (Volvox, Pleodorina, Volvulina, Astrephomene, and Gonium) of the colonial Volvocales (Chlorophyceae) and a related unicellular green alga, Vitreochlamys. The rbcL-462 introns contained an intact or degenerate ORF of various sizes except for the Gonium multicoccum rbcL-462 intron. Partial amino acid sequences of some rbcL-462 intron ORFs exhibited possible homology to the endo/excinuclease amino acid terminal domain. The distribution of the rbcL-462 introns is sporadic in the phylogenetic trees of the colonial Volvocales based on the five chloroplast exon sequences (6021 bp). Phylogenetic analyses of the conserved intron sequences resolved that the G. multicoccum rbcL-462 intron had a phylogenetic position separate from those of other colonial volvocalean rbcL-462 introns, indicating the recent horizontal transmission of the intron in the G. multicoccum lineage. However, the combined data set from conserved intron sequences and ORFs from most of the rbcL-462 introns resolved robust phylogenetic relationships of the introns that were consistent with those of the host organisms. Therefore, most of the extant rbcL-462 introns may have been vertically inherited from the common ancestor of their host organisms, whereas such introns may have been lost in other lineages during evolution of the colonial Volvocales. In addition, apparently higher synonymous substitutions than nonsynonymous substitutions in the rbcL-462 intron ORFs indicated that the ORFs might evolve under functional constraint, which could result in homing of the rbcL-462 intron in cases of spontaneous intron loss. On the other hand, the presence of intact to largely degenerate ORFs of the rbcL-462 introns within the three isolates of Gonium viridistellatum and the rare occurrence of the ORF-lacking rbcL-462 intron suggested that the ORFs might degenerate to result in the spontaneous intron loss during a very short evolutionary time following the loss of the ORF function. Thus, the sporadic distribution of the rbcL-462 introns within the colonial Volvocales can be largely explained by an equilibrium between maintenance of the introns by the intron ORF and spontaneous loss of introns when the introns do not have a functional ORF.
(c) 2002 Elsevier Science (USA).