Abstract

The photosynthetic gene rbcL has been lost or dramatically altered in some lineages of nonphotosynthetic parasitic plants, but the dynamics of these events following loss of photosynthesis and whether rbcL has sustained functionally significant changes in photosynthetic parasitic plants are unknown. To assess the changes to rbcL associated with the loss of functional constraints for photosynthesis, nucleotide sequences from nonparasitic and parasitic plants of Scrophulariales were used for phylogeny reconstruction and character analysis. Plants in this group display a broad range of parasitic abilities, from photosynthetic ("hemiparasites") to nonphotosynthetic ("holoparasites"). With the exception of Conopholis (Orobanchaceae), the rbcL locus is present in all parasitic plants of Scrophulariales examined. Several holoparasitic genera included in this study, including Boschniakia, Epifagus, Orobanche, and Hyobanche, have rbcL pseudogenes. However, the holoparasites Alectra orobanchoides, Harveya capensis, Harveya purpurea, Lathraea clandestina, Orobanche corymbosa, O. fasciculata, and Striga gesnerioides have intact open reading frames (ORFs) for the rbcL gene. Phylogenetic hypotheses based on rbcL are largely in agreement with those based on sequences of the nonphotosynthetic genes rps2 and matK and show a single origin of parasitism, and loss of photosynthesis and pseudogene formation have been independently derived several times in Scrophulariales. The mutations in rbcL in nonparasitic and hemiparasitic plants would result in largely conservative amino acid substitutions, supporting the hypothesis that functional proteins can experience only a limited range of changes, even in minimally photosynthetic plants. In contrast, ORFs in some holoparasites had many previously unobserved missense substitutions at functionally important amino acid residues, suggesting that rbcL genes in these plants have evolved under relaxed or altered functional constraints.