The occurrence of group II introns in plant mitochondrial genomes is strikingly different between the six major land plant clades, contrasting their highly conserved counterparts in chloroplast DNA. Their present distribution likely reflects numerous ancient intron gains and losses during early plant evolution before the emergence of seed plants. As a novelty for plant organelles, we here report on five cases of twintrons, introns-within-introns, in the mitogenomes of lycophytes and hornworts. An internal group II intron interrupts an intron-borne maturase of an atp9 intron in Lycopodiaceae, whose splicing precedes splicing of the external intron. An invasive, hypermobile group II intron in cox1, has conquered nine further locations including a previously overlooked sdh3 intron and, most surprisingly, also itself. In those cases, splicing of the external introns does not depend on splicing of the internal introns. Similar cases are identified in the mtDNAs of hornworts. Although disrupting a group I intron-encoded protein in one case, we could not detect splicing of the internal group II intron in this 'mixed' group I/II twintron. We suggest the name 'zombie' twintrons (half-dead, half-alive) for such cases where splicing of external introns does not depend any more on prior splicing of fossilized internal introns.
© The Author(s) 2020. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Nucleic Acids Research.