Shifts in evolutionary lability underlie independent gains and losses of root-nodule symbiosis in a single clade of plants

Nat Commun. 2024 May 27;15(1):4262. doi: 10.1038/s41467-024-48036-3.


Root nodule symbiosis (RNS) is a complex trait that enables plants to access atmospheric nitrogen converted into usable forms through a mutualistic relationship with soil bacteria. Pinpointing the evolutionary origins of RNS is critical for understanding its genetic basis, but building this evolutionary context is complicated by data limitations and the intermittent presence of RNS in a single clade of ca. 30,000 species of flowering plants, i.e., the nitrogen-fixing clade (NFC). We developed the most extensive de novo phylogeny for the NFC and an RNS trait database to reconstruct the evolution of RNS. Our analysis identifies evolutionary rate heterogeneity associated with a two-step process: An ancestral precursor state transitioned to a more labile state from which RNS was rapidly gained at multiple points in the NFC. We illustrate how a two-step process could explain multiple independent gains and losses of RNS, contrary to recent hypotheses suggesting one gain and numerous losses, and suggest a broader phylogenetic and genetic scope may be required for genome-phenome mapping.

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Magnoliopsida / genetics
  • Magnoliopsida / microbiology
  • Nitrogen Fixation* / genetics
  • Phylogeny*
  • Plant Roots / genetics
  • Plant Roots / microbiology
  • Root Nodules, Plant* / genetics
  • Root Nodules, Plant* / microbiology
  • Symbiosis* / genetics