Background: The class Diphyllatea belongs to a group of enigmatic unicellular eukaryotes that play a key role in reconstructing the morphological innovation and diversification of early eukaryotic evolution. Despite its evolutionary significance, very little is known about the phylogeny and species diversity of Diphyllatea. Only three species have described morphology, being taxonomically divided by flagella number, two or four, and cell size. Currently, one 18S rRNA Diphyllatea sequence is available, with environmental sequencing surveys reporting only a single partial sequence from a Diphyllatea-like organism. Accordingly, geographical distribution of Diphyllatea based on molecular data is limited, despite morphological data suggesting the class has a global distribution. We here present a first attempt to understand species distribution, diversity and higher order structure of Diphyllatea.
Results: We cultured 11 new strains, characterised these morphologically and amplified their rRNA for a combined 18S-28S rRNA phylogeny. We sampled environmental DNA from multiple sites and designed new Diphyllatea-specific PCR primers for long-read PacBio RSII technology. Near full-length 18S rRNA sequences from environmental DNA, in addition to supplementary Diphyllatea sequence data mined from public databases, resolved the phylogeny into three deeply branching and distinct clades (Diphy I - III). Of these, the Diphy III clade is entirely novel, and in congruence with Diphy II, composed of species morphologically consistent with the earlier described Collodictyon triciliatum. The phylogenetic split between the Diphy I and Diphy II + III clades corresponds with a morphological division of Diphyllatea into bi- and quadriflagellate cell forms.
Conclusions: This altered flagella composition must have occurred early in the diversification of Diphyllatea and may represent one of the earliest known morphological transitions among eukaryotes. Further, the substantial increase in molecular data presented here confirms Diphyllatea has a global distribution, seemingly restricted to freshwater habitats. Altogether, the results reveal the advantage of combining a group-specific PCR approach and long-read high-throughput amplicon sequencing in surveying enigmatic eukaryote lineages. Lastly, our study shows the capacity of PacBio RS when targeting a protist class for increasing phylogenetic resolution.
Keywords: Amplicon; Collodictyon; Diphyllatea; PacBio; Phylogeny; rRNA.