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A comparison of chloroplast genome sequences in Aconitum (Ranunculaceae): a traditional herbal medicinal genus

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A comparison of chloroplast genome sequences in Aconitum (Ranunculaceae): a traditional herbal medicinal genus
Note that a Preprint of this article also exists, first published October 21, 2017.


The chloroplast (cp) is an intracellular organelle that plays an important role in the process of photosynthesis and it is widely present in algae and plants (Neuhaus & Emes, 2000; Inoue, 2011). The cp genome in angiosperms is a circular DNA molecule with a typically quadripartite structure, consisting of two copies of a large inverted repeat (IR) region that separates a large-single-copy (LSC) region from a small-single-copy (SSC) region (Raubeson & Jansen, 2005; Yang et al., 2010; Green, 2011; Wicke et al., 2011). Although highly conserved among plants, some differences in gene synteny, copy number and pseudogenes have been observed in cp genome structures (Roy et al., 2010; Lei et al., 2016; Ivanova et al., 2017). A complete cp genome is valuable for plant taxonomical analyses, phylogenetic reconstructions, speciation processes, and biogeographical inferences at different taxonomic levels. The cp genome is useful in investigating the maternal origin in plants, especially those with polyploid species, due to their haploid maternal inheritance and high conservation in gene content and genome structure (Birky, 1995; Soltis & Soltis, 2000; Song et al., 2002). High-throughput sequencing technologies have enabled a rapid increase in the completion of cp genomes and have shifted the study of phylogenetics to phylogenomics. Highly informative universal markers based on indels, substitutions, and inversions of the cp genome have been further developed for various molecular studies in plants.

The genus Aconitum L. belongs to the tribe Delphinieae in the Ranunculaceae family and represents one of the earliest diverging lineages within the eudicots APG IV (Wang et al., 2009; Sun et al., 2011; The Angiosperm Phylogeny Group et al., 2016). It is currently divided into two subgenera, A. subgenus Lycoctonum and A. subgenus Aconitum, comprising about more than 400 species throughout Eurasia and North America with its diversification center in Eastern Asia (Utelli, Roy & Baltisberger, 2000; Jabbour & Renner, 2012; Wang et al., 2013). Polyploid species were identified in both subgenera, particularly in subg. Lycoctonum. One of the tetraploid species in subg. Lycoctonum is A. angustius (2n = 4x = 32), which possesses heterologous chromosomes and is hypothesized to be a hybrid of A. finetianum (2n = 2x = 16) and A. sinomontanum (2n = 2x = 16) (Gao, 2009; Kong et al., 2017b). The three species display intermediate morphological characteristics and overlapping geographical distributions (Shang & Lee, 1984; Yuan & Yang, 2006; Gao, 2009; Gao, Ren & Yang, 2012). Based on previous morphological analysis and phylogenetic inference, A. finetianum was inferred to be the putative maternal progenitor of A. angustius (Gao, 2009; Kong et al., 2017b).

The genus Aconitum is known as a taxonomically and phylogenetically challenging taxon. Early divergence between subg. Lycoctonum and subg. Aconitum in Europe was suggested based on trnH-psbA and ITS (Utelli, Roy & Baltisberger, 2000). Although high morphological variability within and among populations was detected due to recent speciation, the morphological characteristics are poor indicators of relatedness. Jabbour & Renner (2012) conducted a phylogenetic reconstruction focusing on Delphineae based on trnL-F and ITS that suggested Aconitum was monophyletic clade and a sister group of Delphinium. However, few species from Eastern Asia were used, which may have affected the previous phylogenetic analysis. Most recently, phylogenetic inferences of polyploid species relationships in subg. Lycoctonum were made using four cpDNA intergenic regions (ndhF-trnL, psbA-trnH, psbD-trnT, and trnT-L) and two nrDNA regions (ITS and ETS) (Kong et al., 2017b), Aconitum finetianum was inferred as the maternal progenitor of A. angustius. With the same cpDNA intergenic regions, taxonomical revision has been conducted based on phylogenetic analyses of subg. Lycoctonum by Hong et al. (2017), yet phylogenetic information at the genomics level has been absent.

Although some Aconitum species are highly toxic because of aconite alkaloid, many species are essential in the formulation of traditional herbal medicine in Asia (Zhao et al., 2010; Semenov et al., 2016; Wada et al., 2016; Liang et al., 2017). The current state of Aconitum phylogenetics lacks molecular information of some species in Eastern Asia, and thus inhibits identification and germplasm utilization of this genus. In this study, we report the complete cp genome sequences of three species in subg. Lycoctonum; we established and characterized the organization of the cp genome sequences of tetraploid A. angustius as well as diploid A. finetianum and A. sinomontanum. We further compared the structure, gene arrangement and microsatellite repeats (SSRs) with the related species in both subgenera of Aconitum. Altogether, 14 species and two varieties from Aconitum were used for phylogenetic reconstruction at the genomic level. Seven previously unanalyzed species from the subg. Aconitum in Eastern Asia were investigated for phylogenetic relationships, and the maternal origin of A. finetianum was explored in the tetraploid, A. angustius. Our results provide cp genomic information for taxonomical identification, phylogenetic inference, or the population history of Aconitum or Ranunculaceae, which can also aid in the utilization of the genetic resources of Aconitum as a traditional herbal medicine.

Materials and Methods

Plant samples and DNA extraction

Fresh leaves were collected from A. angustius, A. finetianum and A. sinomontanum growing in the greenhouse of South China Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Total genomic DNA was extracted from the fresh leaves of A. angustius, A. finetianum and A. sinomontanum using the modified CTAB method (Doyle & Doyle, 1987). The DNA concentration was quantified using a Nanodrop spectrophotometer (Thermo Scientific, Carlsbad, CA, USA), and a final DNA concentration of >30 ng/µL was used for Illumina sequencing.

Chloroplast genome sequencing, assembly and annotation

We sequenced the complete cp genome of A. angustius, A. finetianum and A. sinomontanum with an Illumina HiSeq 2000 at Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) in Wuhan, China. Genomic DNA was fragmented randomly and then the required length of DNA fragments was obtained by electrophoresis. Adapters were ligated to DNA fragments followed by cluster preparation and sequencing. A paired-end library was constructed with 270 bp insert size, and then 150 bp paired reads were sequenced using an Illumina HiSeq 2000.

We assembled the cp genomes using Geneious 9.1.4 (Biomatters Ltd., Auckland, New Zealand) with BLAST and map reference tools, respectively. Using the program DOGMA ( (Wyman, Jansen & Boore, 2004) and Geneious, annotation was performed in comparison with the cp genomes of A. reclinatum (MF186593) (Kong et al., 2017a), A. barbatum var. puberulum (KC844054) (Chen et al., 2015), and A. barbatum var. hispidum (KT820664) in subg. Lycoctonum as well as 10 species from the subg. Aconitum (Choi et al., 2016; GB Kim, CE Lim & JH Mun, 2016, unpublished data; Lim et al., 2017; D Yang, 2016, unpublished data; SG Yang et al., 2017, unpublished data) (Table 1). Altogether, 14 species and two varieties in both subgenera of Aconitum were used for annotation (Table 1). Among those species, A. angustius, A. finetianum, A. sinomontanum, A. barbatum var. hispidum, and A. barbatum var. puberulum were collected from China (Chen et al., 2015), A. reclinatum came from the United States (Kong et al., 2017a), while the remaining species were all sampled from Korea (Choi et al., 2016; GB Kim, CE Lim & JH Mun, 2016, unpublished data; Lim et al., 2017; D Yang, 2016, unpublished data; SG Yang et al., 2017, unpublished data). Chloroplast genome sequences of Aconitum species from Europe were not available in GenBank.

Table 1:
Summary of characteristics in chloroplast genome sequences of thirteen species and two varieties in Aconitum.
GenBank no. Voucher number/herbarium Total genome size (bp) LSC (bp) SSC (bp) IR (bp) Total number of genes Protein- coding genes tRNA genes rRNA genes GC content
A. angustius MF155664 ZY37/IBSC 156,109 86,719 16,914 26,225 126 84 38 4 38%
A. finetianum MF155665 ZY25/IBSC 155,625 86,664 17,107 25,927 126 84 38 4 38%
A. sinomontanum MF155666 ZY46/IBSC 157,215 88,074 16,926 26,090 126 84 38 4 38%
A. reclinatum MF186593 US17/IBSC 157,354 88,269 16,963 26,061 127 86 37 4 38%
A.barbatum var. puberulum KC844054 Not provided/- 156,749 87,630 16,941 26,089 127 85 38 4 38%
A.barbatum var. hispidum KT820664 VP0000486327/NIBR 156,782 87,661 16,987 26,067 127 85 38 4 38%
A. austrokoreense KT820663 VP0000494173/NIBR 155,682 86,388 17,054 26,120 126 83 39 4 38.1%
A.carmichaelii KX347251 ACAR20151205/- 155,737 86,330 17,021 26,193 124 83 37 4 38.1%
A. chiisanense KT820665 VP0000494177/NIBR 155,934 86,559 17,085 26,145 125 82 39 4 38.1%
A. ciliare KT820666 VP0000486323/NIBR 155,832 86,452 17,084 26,148 126 83 39 4 38.1%
A. coreanum KT820667 VP0000486326/NIBR 157,029 87,622 17,035 26,186 128 86 38 4 38.0%
A. jaluense KT820669 VP0000494219/NIBR 155,926 86,406 17,090 26,215 126 83 39 4 38.1%
A. japonicum KT820670 VP0000494223/NIBR 155,878 86,480 17,104 26,147 127 84 39 4 38.1%
A. kusnezoffii KT820671 VP0000529885/NIBR 155,862 86,335 17,103 26,212 126 84 39 4 38.1%
A. monanthum KT820672 VP0000529886/NIBR 155,688 86,292 16,996 26,200 125 82 39 4 38.1%
A. volubile KU556690 MBC_KIOM-2015- 73/KIOM 155,872 86,348 16,944 26,290 126 83 38 4 38.1%
DOI: 10.7717/peerj.4018/table-1

The annotation of tRNA genes were confirmed using the ARAGORN program (Laslett & Canback, 2004), and then manually adjusted using the program Geneious. Contigs with BLAST hits to consensus sequence from the “map to reference function” were assembled manually to construct complete chloroplast genomes. Finally, the circular genome maps of the three species were illustrated using the Organellar Genome DRAW tool (OGDRAW, (Lohse et al., 2013). The annotated chloroplast genomic sequences of A. angustius, A. finetianum and A. sinomontanum have been submitted to GenBank (Accession Number: MF155664, MF155665 and MF155666).

Genome comparison and divergence hotspot

The cp genome sequences from the finalized data set were aligned with MAFFT v7.0.0 (Katoh & Frith, 2012) and adjusted manually when necessary. Based on many other cp genome studies, the IRs expansion/contraction could lead to changes in the structure of the cp genome, leading to the length variation of angiosperm cp genomes and contributing to the formation of pseudogenes (Kim & Lee, 2004; Nazareno, Carlsen & Lohmann, 2015; Ivanova et al., 2017). Therefore, we conducted comparative analysis to detect the variation in the LSC/IR/SSC boundaries among the species/varieties. Comparative analysis of the nucleotide diversity (Pi) among the complete cp genomes of Aconitum was performed based on a sliding window analysis using DnaSP 5.10 (Librado & Rozas, 2009). The window length was 600 bp and step size was 200 bp. To test and visualize the presence of genome rearrangement and inversions, gene synteny was performed using MAUVE as implemented in Geneious with default settings based on 14 species and two varieties in both subgenera.

Simple sequence repeats analysis

MISA ( (Thiel et al., 2003) is a tool for the identification and location of perfect microsatellites and compound microsatellites (two individual microsatellites, disrupted by a certain number of bases). We used MISA to search for potential simple sequence repeats (SSRs) loci in the cp genomes of the three species. The minimum number (thresholds) of SSRs was set as 10, 5, 4, 3, and 3 for mono-, di-, tri-, tetra-, and penta-nucleotides SSRs, respectively. All of the repeats found were manually verified and the redundant ones were removed.

Phylogenetic analysis

Four species and two varieties in subg. Lycoctonum and 10 species in subg. Aconitum were used for phylogenetic reconstruction, with Megaleranthis saniculifolia and Clematis terniflorav as the outgroup. Except for A. kusnezoffii, A. volubile, and A. ciliare, the remaining seven species in subg. Aconitum from Korea were first used for phylogenetic analysis. The complete cp genome sequences and PCGs were used for the phylogenetic reconstruction of Aconitum species in Eastern Asia. Three different methods including Bayesian Inference (BI), Maximum Parsimony (MP), and Maximum Likelihood (ML) were employed. In all analyses, gaps were treated as missing.

Bayesian Inference (BI) of the phylogenies was performed using MrBayes v.3.2 (Huelsenbeck & Ronquist, 2001; Ronquist & Huelsenbeck, 2003). The best model was determined for each sequence partition, after comparisons among 24 models of nucleotide substitution using Modeltest v.3.7 (Posada & Crandall, 1998). We performed MP using PAUP* v.4.0b10 (Swofford, 2002). We calculated the bootstrap values with 1,000 bootstrap replicates, each with 10 random sequence addition replicates holding a single tree for each run. We conducted ML using RAxML (Stamatakis, 2006) and the RAxML graphical interface (raxmlGUI v.1.3 (Silvestro & Michalak, 2012)) with 1,000 rapid bootstrap replicates. The general time-reversible (GTR) model was chosen with a gamma model for the rate of heterogeneity.

Results and Discussion

Genome organization and features

Using the Illumina HiSeq 2000 sequencing platform, a total number of 2 ×  150 bp pair-end reads ranging from 9,879,068 to 27,530,148 bp were produced for the three species in subg. Lycoctonum. Altogether, 1,270 Mb of clean data were produced for A. angustius, 3,586 Mb for A. finetianum, and 3,590 Mb for A. sinomontanum. The assembly generated an average of 6,713 contigs with a N50 length of 732 bp for A. angustius, an average of 6,201 contigs with a N50 length of 801 bp bp for A. finetianum, and an average of 6,999 contigs with a N50 length of 769 bp for A. sinomontanum. Scaffolds from the assembly with k-mer values of 35 to 149 were matched to reference cp genome sequences, which were used to determine the relative position and direction respectively. We generated a new draft chloroplast genome by manually identifying the overlapping regions. To further refine the draft genome, the quality and coverage of each was double-checked by remapping reads. The complete cp genome sequences of the three species with full annotations were deposited into GenBank.

The size of the cp genomes was 156,109 bp for A. angustius, 155,625 bp for A. finetianum and 157,215 bp for A. sinomontanum (Table 1). The chloroplast genomes displayed a typical quadripartite structure, including a pair of IRs (25,927–26,225 bp) separated by LSC (86,664–88,074 bp) and SSC (16,914–17,107 bp) regions (Fig. 1 and Table 1). The GC content of the three cp genomes was 38.00%, demonstrating congruence with other Aconitum species (38.00% or 38.10%) (Table 1).

The gene maps of Aconitum angustius, A. finetianum, and A. sinomontanum.

Figure 1: The gene maps of Aconitum angustius, A. finetianum, and A. sinomontanum.

The genes lying inside and outside the circles are transcribed in the clockwise and counterclockwise directions, respectively. Different colors denote the genes belonging to different functional groups. The thicknesses indicate the extent of the inverted repeats (IRa and IRb) that separate the small single-copy (SSC) region from the large single-copy (LSC) region. The dark gray in the inner circle corresponds to GC content, and the light gray to AT content.

When duplicated genes in the IR regions were counted only once, each of the three cp genomes encode 126 predicted functional genes, including 84 PCGs, 38 tRNA genes, and four rRNA genes. The remaining non-coding regions include introns, intergenic spacers, and pseudogenes. Altogether 18 genes were duplicated in the IR regions, including seven PCGs, seven tRNA genes, and four rRNA genes (Fig. 1; Table S1). Each of the thirteen genes (eight PCGs and five tRNA genes) contained one interval, and three PCGs (clpP, ycf3 and rps12) had two intervals each (Table S1). The maturase K (matK) gene in the cp genomes of the three species is located within trnK intron, which is similar in most of the other plants species (Kong & Yang, 2017). In the IR regions, the four rRNA genes and two tRNA genes (trnI and trnA) are clustered as 16S-trnI-trnA-23S-4.5S-5S. This has also been reported in the cp genomes of A. barbatum var. hispidum, A. barbatum var. puberulum, and many other plant species (Mardanov et al., 2008; Wu et al., 2014; Chen et al., 2015).

Comparative analysis of genomic structure

Synteny analysis identified a lack of genome rearrangement and inversions in the cp genome sequences of the Aconitum species. No gene rearrangement and inversion events were detected (Fig. S1). Genomic structure, including gene number and gene order, is highly conserved among the Aconitum species; however, structural variation was still present in the LSC/IR/SSC boundaries (Fig. 2). The genes rps19-rp12-trnH and ycf1-ndhF were located between the junction of the LSC/IR and SSC/IR regions. The rps19 gene crosses the LSC/IRa junction region in A. sinomontanum, A. barbatum var. puberulum and A. barbatum var. hispidum of subg. Lycoctonum, as well as in A. jaluense, A. volubile, A. carmichaelii, A. kusnezoffii and A. monanthum of subg. Aconitum. As a result, the rps19 gene has apparently lost its protein-coding ability due to being partially duplicated in the IRb region, thus a producing pseudogenized Ψrps19 gene. The same was found with the ycf1 gene, as the IRb/SSC junction region is located within the ycf1 CDS region and only a partial gene is duplicated in the IRa region, resulting in a pseudogene. This is a general structure among the dicots. The Ψycf1 pseudogene in the IR region was 1,279 bp for two varieties in subg. Lycoctonum and seven species in subg. Aconitum. However, length variation was present in the IR of the remaining six species: 1,292 bp in A. angustius, A sinomontanum, and A. reclinatum; 1,165 bp in A. finetianum; 1,274 bp in A. chiisanense; 1,356 bp in A. volubile; and 1,263 bp in A. carmichaelii (Fig. 2; Table 2).

Comparison of the border positions of LSC, SSC and IR repeat regions among fourteen species and two varieties in Aconitum.

Figure 2: Comparison of the border positions of LSC, SSC and IR repeat regions among fourteen species and two varieties in Aconitum.

Genes are denoted by grey boxes and the gaps between the genes and the boundaries are indicated by the base lengths (bp). Extensions of the genes are also indicated above the boxes.
Table 2:
The distribution of the five pseudogenes in Aconitum.
Locations LSC LSC/IRa IRa IRa/SSC
Genes Ψrps16 ΨinfA Ψrps19 Ψycf15 Ψycf1
A. angustius + +/1,292 bp
A. finetianum + +/1,165 bp
A. sinomontanum + +/34 bp +/1,292 bp
A. reclinatum + + +/1,292 bp
A. barbatum var. puberulum + +/34 bp +/1,279 bp
A. barbatum var. hispidum + +/34 bp +/1,279 bp
A. austrokoreense + +/4 bp indel +/1,279 bp
A. carmichaelii + +/3 bp +/1,263 bp
A. chiisanense + +/4 bp indel +/1,274 bp
A. ciliare + +/1,279 bp
A. coreanum + +/1,279 bp
A. jaluense + +/3 bp +/1,279 bp
textitA. japonicum + +/1,279 bp
A. kusnezoffii + +/3 bp +/1,279 bp
A. monanthum + +/3 bp +/1 bp indel +/1,279 bp
A. volubile + +/3 bp +/1,356 bp
DOI: 10.7717/peerj.4018/table-2


+, indicating the presence of pseudogenes.

Three pseudogenes, Ψycf15, Ψrps16, and ΨinfA, were identified in the gene annotations (Table 2). The Ψycf15 gene is pseudolized in A. austrokoreense and A. chiisanense with four base insertions and pseudolized in A. monanthum with a one base insertion, contributing to several internal stop codons. The ΨinfA region is pseudogenized with two nonsynonymous substitutions producing internal stop codons in all of the members of subg. Lycoctonum. This pseudogenized ΨinfA gene has also been found in other angiosperm chloroplast genomes (Roman & Park, 2015; Lu, Li & Qiu, 2017). The gene rps16 encodes the ribosomal protein S16 and is present in the cp genome of most if the higher plants. However, rps16 has been functionally lost in various plant species (Roy et al., 2010). A pseudogene Ψrps16 was also present in the cp genomes of A. angustius, A. finetianum and A. reclinatum in subg. Lycoctonum as well as in the nine species in subg. Aconitum due to the loss of one CDS region (Table 2). As has been revealed in other studies, the functional loss of the rps16 gene might be compensated by the dual targeting of the nuclear rps16 gene product (Keller et al., 2017).

Sequence divergence among the species in Aconitum

The average nucleotide variability (Pi) values were estimated to be 0.00549, ranging from 0 to 0.03856, based on the comparative analysis of cp genome sequences in Aconitum species. The highest variation was found in the LSC and SSC regions, with an average Pi = 0.007140 and 0.008368, respectively. The IR regions had a much lower nucleotide diversity with Pi = 0.001079 and 0.001459. Eight intergenic regions (trnH-psbA, trnK-rps16, trnD-trnY, trnY-trnE, trnE-trnT, trnT-trnL, rpl12-clpP and trnH-trnR) were highly variable, with Pi value ∼0.023 (Fig. 3). The former eight loci are present in the LSC, while the pseudogene Ψycf1 is in the SSC region. The single-copy regions have been demonstrated to be highly variable with loci clustered in ‘hot spots’ (Kong & Yang, 2017). Among the eight intergenic regions, trnH-psbA and trnT-trnL are variable and useful for phylogenetic reconstruction in the subg. Lycoctonum (Utelli, Roy & Baltisberger, 2000; Kong et al., 2017b). However, the other intergenic regions, even with higher nucleotide variability, have never been involved in the phylogenetic analysis for the genus Aconitum. The highly variable loci detected in the current study may provide a basis for further phylogenetic characterization of this genus. The observed divergence hotspot regions provide abundant information for marker development in phylogenetic analysis or conservation genetics of Aconitum.

Characterization of simple sequence repeats

MISA was used to identify SSRs with minimum a of 10 bp repeats among the three species. In A. angustius, 60 SSRs were found, while 62 SSRs were found in A. finetianum, and 58 in A. sinomontanum. This result is comparable with A. reclinatum (61 SSRs), A. barbatum var. hispidum (53 SSRs), and A. barbatum var. puberulum (57 SSRs). An average of 59 SSRs were identified in subg. Lycoctonum, which is relatively higher than that of subg. Aconitum (47). In both subgenera, most SSRs are in the LSC regions, accounting for an average of 85.31% and 80.85% in subg. Lycoctonum and subg. Aconitum, respectively. Among all of the SSRs, the mononucleotide A/T repeat units occupied the highest proportion, with 64.41% and 46.82% of the total SSRs in subg. Lycoctonum and subg. Aconitum, respectively. Although few SSRs were detected in subg. Aconitum, a higher proportion of di-, tri-, tetra- and penta-nucleotide repeats were detected (Table 3). The SSRs have a remarkably high A/T content with only seven SSRs, namely (ATCT)3, (TTCT)3, (CTTT)3, (TAAAG)3, (TTTC)3, (ATAC)3 and (CATT)3, that contain one C or G nucleotide.

Sliding window analysis of the whole cp genome for fourteen species and two varieties in Aconitum.

Figure 3: Sliding window analysis of the whole cp genome for fourteen species and two varieties in Aconitum.

X-axis, position of the midpoint of a window; Y-axis, nucleotide diversity (Pi) of each window.

A total of 11 cp SSR loci were shared among the cp genomes of tetraploid A. angustius and diploid A. finetianum. No common cp SSRs were specifically found between A. angustius and A. sinomontanum. This result provides evidence of the maternal origin of the tetraploid A. angustius from diploid A. finetianum, which is consistent with previous research (Gao, 2009; Kong et al., 2017b). Among the three species, the highest number of unique SSRs loci were present in A. sinomontanum (11) followed by A. angustius (7), A. finetianum (6), and A. reclinatum (5).

Table 3:
Number of chloroplast SSRs in different regions or different types present in Aconitum species.
Species Number of SSRs in different regions
Homo (>10) Di (>5) Tri (>5) Te(>3) Pen (>3) LSC SSC IR Total
subg.Lycoctonum 38 (64.41%) 10 (16.95%) 3 (4.80%) 8 (12.99%) 0 (0.00%) 50 (85.31%) 7 (11.02%) 2 (3.39%) 59
A. angustius 40 9 2 8 1 50 8 2 60
A. finetianum 42 9 2 8 1 51 9 2 62
A. sinomontanum 36 12 2 8 0 50 6 2 58
A. reclinatum 42 10 2 7 0 53 6 2 61
A. barbatum var. puberulum 36 10 2 8 0 49 5 2 56
A. barbatum var. hispidum 32 10 7 7 0 49 5 2 56
subg.Aconitum 22 (46.81%) 15 (31.91%) 1 (21.28%) 7 (14.89%) 1 (21.28%) 38 (80.85%) 7 (14.89%) 2 (4.36%) 47
A. austrokoreense 22 15 0 7 0 32 10 2 44
A. carmichaelii 21 16 1 7 0 37 6 2 45
A. chiisanense 21 16 1 7 2 39 6 2 47
A. ciliare 23 16 1 7 1 41 5 2 48
A. coreanum 39 14 1 7 1 50 10 2 62
A. jaluense 17 14 1 6 2 33 6 2 41
A. japonicum 20 16 1 7 1 37 6 2 46
A. volubile 17 15 1 6 1 35 3 2 40
A. kusnezoffii 19 16 1 7 1 37 5 2 44
A. monanthum 18 13 0 7 2 36 9 2 47
DOI: 10.7717/peerj.4018/table-3

Phylogenetic analyses

In the present study, three phylogenetic methods (BI, MP and ML) resulted in identical phylogenetic trees within each data set. Different analyses based on the two datasets generated largely congruent topologies (Fig. 4). The total aligned length with parsimony informative loci was 178,392 bp with 4,342 for the complete cp genome sequences, and 106,535 bp with 3,164 for PCGs, respectively. All of the phylogenetic trees support that Aconitum comprises two monophyletic subgenera. High Bayesian posterior probabilities and bootstrap values were detected at most nodes, particularly based on the complete cp genomes (Fig. 4A).

Phylogenomic relationship among Aconitum species.

Figure 4: Phylogenomic relationship among Aconitum species.

Based on the two data sets of complete cp genome sequences (A) and PCGs (B), respectively, phylogenetic reconstruction was conducted using three methods: Bayesian Inference (BI), Maximum Parsimony (MP) and Maximum Likelihood (ML). Numbers above the branches represent BI posterior probabilities, MP and ML bootstrap values. The pseudogenes are indicated above the branches in different colors on the phylogenetic tree based on PCGs (B).

The phylogenetic relationship of Korean species in subg. Aconitum was investigated for the first time. The monophyletic clade was formed by A. ciliare, A. carmichaelii, A. japonicum subsp. napiforme and A. kusnezoffii, with strong support values (Fig. 4). The clade comprised of A. jaluense subsp. jaluense and A. volubile exhibited moderate-to-high support, forming a monophyletic sister group. The positions of the four species A. ciliare, A. carmichaelii, A. austrokoreense, and A. chiisanense, demonstrated inconsistencies based on the two data sets. Obviously, these species received stronger support based on the sequences of the complete cp genome rather than PCGs, indicating that whole genomes are more efficient in determining phylogenetic relatedness in Aconitum than PCGs alone.

Based on the phylogenetic tree, the tetraploid A. angustius was always closely related with diploid A. finetianum, which further supports previous research (Kong et al., 2017b). The two species co-occur on several mountains in southeast China and even grow very closely within a community (Yuan & Yang, 2006). They show similar morphological characteristics in having three-part leaves, the cylindric upper sepals and retrosely pubescent pedicels, resulting in common misidentification (Gao, Ren & Yang, 2012). Aconitum finetianum is the most likely maternal progenitor of A. angustius based on both molecular phylogenetic and morphological evidence (Kong et al., 2017b); therefore, it is reasonable to see that the two species have a close phylogenetic relationship.

The five pseudogenes exhibit different evolutionary histories from each other. Concerning the evolution of Ψycf15, it occurs in only three species A. monanthum, A. austrokoreense, and A. chiisanense of subgen. Aconitum, which was probably pseudogenized once in each species independently and subsequently restored to a functional copy. We propose that Ψrps16 was pseudogenized during the divergence between the two subgenera and restored to a functional copy within the A. sinomontanum-A. barbatum clade of subgen. Lycoctonum. With respect to Ψrps19, it appears to have been pseudogenized multiple times independently in phylogenetically distant species of the two subgenera. Ψycf1 is commonly found among cp genomes of plant species. Within Aconitum, Ψycf1 exhibits length variation and multiple convergent mutation events, which are not consistent with the phylogenetic relationships of the genus. Only ΨinfA shows an evolutionary history congruent with the phylogeny of Aconitum (Fig. 4B; Table 2). Overall, our results show that similarities among pseudo-gene sequences do not necessarily predict phylogenetic relationships among species.

Supplemental Information

Gene order comparison among Aconitum species by using MAUVE program

The boxes above and below the line represent the gene sequences in clockwise and anticlockwise directions, respectively. The gene names at the bottom indicate the genes located at the boundaries of the boxes in cp genome of Aconitum.

DOI: 10.7717/peerj.4018/supp-1

Gene contained in the sequenced chloroplast genomes of three Aconitum species

DOI: 10.7717/peerj.4018/supp-2