Molecular evolution of calcification genes in morphologically similar but phylogenetically unrelated scleractinian corals

Herman H. Wirshing, Andrew C. Baker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Molecular phylogenies of scleractinian corals often fail to agree with traditional phylogenies derived from morphological characters. These discrepancies are generally attributed to non-homologous or morphologically plastic characters used in taxonomic descriptions. Consequently, morphological convergence of coral skeletons among phylogenetically unrelated groups is considered to be the major evolutionary process confounding molecular and morphological hypotheses. A strategy that may help identify cases of convergence and/or diversification in coral morphology is to compare phylogenies of existing "neutral" genetic markers used to estimate genealogic phylogenetic history with phylogenies generated from non-neutral genes involved in calcification (biomineralization). We tested the hypothesis that differences among calcification gene phylogenies with respect to the "neutral" trees may represent convergent or divergent functional strategies among calcification gene proteins that may correlate to aspects of coral skeletal morphology. Partial sequences of two nuclear genes previously determined to be involved in the calcification process in corals, "Cnidaria-III" membrane-bound/secreted α-carbonic anhydrase (CIII-MBSα-CA) and bone morphogenic protein (BMP) 2/4, were PCR-amplified, cloned and sequenced from 31 scleractinian coral species in 26 genera and 9 families. For comparison, "neutral" gene phylogenies were generated from sequences from two protein-coding "non-calcification" genes, one nuclear (β-tubulin) and one mitochondrial (cytochrome b), from the same individuals. Cloned CIII-MBSα-CA sequences were found to be non-neutral, and phylogenetic analyses revealed CIII-MBSα-CAs to exhibit a complex evolutionary history with clones distributed between at least 2 putative gene copies. However, for several coral taxa only one gene copy was recovered. With CIII-MBSα-CA, several recovered clades grouped taxa that differed from the "non-calcification" loci. In some cases, these taxa shared aspects of their skeletal morphology (i.e., convergence or diversification relative to the "non-calcification" loci), but in other cases they did not. For example, the "non-calcification" loci recovered Atlantic and Pacific mussids as separate evolutionary lineages, whereas with CIII-MBSα-CA, clones of two species of Atlantic mussids ( Isophyllia sinuosa and Mycetophyllia sp.) and two species of Pacific mussids ( Acanthastrea echinata and Lobophyllia hemprichii) were united in a distinct clade (except for one individual of Mycetophyllia). However, this clade also contained other taxa which were not unambiguously correlated with morphological features. BMP2/4 also contained clones that likely represent different gene copies. However, many of the sequences showed no significant deviation from neutrality, and reconstructed phylogenies were similar to the "non-calcification" tree topologies with a few exceptions. Although individual calcification genes are unlikely to precisely explain the diverse morphological features exhibited by scleractinian corals, this study demonstrates an approach for identifying cases where morphological taxonomy may have been misled by convergent and/or divergent molecular evolutionary processes in corals. Studies such as this may help illuminate our understanding of the likely complex evolution of genes involved in the calcification process, and enhance our knowledge of the natural history and biodiversity within this central ecological group.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)281-295
Number of pages15
JournalMolecular Phylogenetics and Evolution
Issue number1
StatePublished - Aug 2014


  • Biomineralization
  • Bone morphogenic protein (BMP)
  • Carbonic anhydrase
  • Phylogenetics
  • Scleractinia

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Medicine(all)


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