Frequent, phylogenetically local horizontal transfer of the cox1 group I Intron in flowering plant mitochondria

Mol Biol Evol. 2008 Aug;25(8):1762-77. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msn129. Epub 2008 Jun 3.


Horizontal gene transfer is surprisingly common among plant mitochondrial genomes. The first well-established case involves a homing group I intron in the mitochondrial cox1 gene shown to have been frequently acquired via horizontal transfer in angiosperms. Here, we report extensive additional sampling of angiosperms, including 85 newly sequenced introns from 30 families. Analysis of all available data leads us to conclude that, among the 640 angiosperms (from 212 families) whose cox1 intron status has been characterized thus far, the intron has been acquired via roughly 70 separate horizontal transfer events. We propose that the intron was originally seeded into angiosperms by a single transfer from fungi, with all subsequent inferred transfers occurring from one angiosperm to another. The pattern of angiosperm-to-angiosperm transfer is biased toward exchanges between plants belonging to the same family. Illegitimate pollination is proposed as one potential factor responsible for this pattern, given that aberrant, cross-species pollination is more likely between close relatives. Other potential factors include shared vectoring agents or common geographic locations. We report the first apparent cases of loss of the cox1 intron; losses are accompanied by retention of the exonic coconversion tract, which is located immediately downstream of the intron and which is a product of the intron's self-insertion mechanism. We discuss the many reasons why the cox1 intron is so frequently and detectably transferred, and rarely lost, and conclude that it should be regarded as the "canary in the coal mine" with respect to horizontal transfer in angiosperm mitochondria.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Base Sequence
  • Cyclooxygenase 1 / genetics*
  • DNA Primers / genetics
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics*
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Gene Transfer, Horizontal / genetics*
  • Introns / genetics*
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Magnoliopsida / genetics*
  • Models, Genetic
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Phylogeny*
  • Sequence Alignment
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA
  • Species Specificity


  • DNA Primers
  • DNA, Mitochondrial
  • Cyclooxygenase 1