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Multiple introns in a deep-sea Annelid (Decemunciger: Ampharetidae) mitochondrial genome


Wood falls provide episodic fluxes of energy to the sea floor that are degraded by a species-rich benthic fauna. Part of this rich diversity includes annelid polychaetes but unfortunately, our understanding of such fauna is limited and their genetic variability and evolutionary origins remain poorly known. In this study, we sequenced complete mitochondrial genomes from three congeneric Decemunciger (Ampharetidae) individuals that had colonized multiple wood falls in the deep (~1600 m) NE Pacific Ocean. Mitochondrial gene order within Decemunciger was similar to the three other available Terebellomorpha genomes, consistent with the relatively conserved nature of mitochondrial genomes within annelids. Unexpectedly, we found introns within the cox1, nad1 and nad4 genes of all three genomes assembled. This is the greatest number of introns observed in annelid mtDNA genomes, and possibly in bilaterians. Interestingly, the introns were of variable sizes suggesting possible evolutionary differences in the age and origins of introns. The sequence of the introns within cox1 is similar to Group II introns previously identified, suggesting that introns in the mitochondrial genome of annelids may be more widespread then realized. Phylogenetically, Decemunciger appears to be a sister clade among current vent and seep deep-sea Ampharetinae.


Ampharetid polychaetes are tube-dewelling annelids that are abundant on shallow-marine and deep-sea continental margins, with some species showing adaptations to sulfide-rich sediments near cold seeps and organic falls, including wood-falls and whale carcasses1,2,3,4,5,6,7. In organic-fall and cold-seep habitats, these polychaetes can show remarkable abundances and diversity and may be important for organic-matter degradation8, 9. However, as with many other deep-sea taxa, there is limited understanding of their diversity and evolution, requiring additional study including use of informative molecular markers10, 11. Despite their high diversity and abundance in the deep-sea, a limited number of polychaete taxa have been molecularly characterized from deep-sea ecosystems and from chemosynthetic habitats12,13,14.

Advances in phylogenetic and evolutionary understanding of Annelida has been made using comparative mitogenomics15,16,17. Annelids, like other bilaterians, typically have 37 mitochondrial genes18,19,20. Recent descriptions of mitochondrial genomes from several annelid linneages revealed marked differences in gene order that are helping to resolve phylogenetic relationships, even though some inconsistencies between sequence data and phylogenies remain14, 20, 21. There are currently about 90 complete annelid mitochondrial DNA sequences (mtDNA) published14, 22, with many underrepresented linneages, making broad scale mitogenomic comparisons limited given the extremely high number of species in the deep-sea13. For instance, in the family Ampharetidae, there are only two incomplete mitochondrial genomes reported (Eclysippe vanelli and Auchenoplax crinita)18.

Descriptions of new mtDNA genomes can help to clarify phylogenetic relationships among closely related lineages and also to discover less frequent genome features such as the presence of group II introns23. The phylogeny of Terebelliformia includes two clades, one with Ampharetidae, Alvinellidae and Pectinariidae and the other with Terebellidae and Trichobranchidae24. Ampharetidae is a sister group to Alvinellidae based on current molecular analysis from mitochondrial and nuclear genes6, 7, 11, 25, but the taxonomy within the family is complex due to morphological variability. There is only limited phylogenetic work within Ampharetidae, but the subfamily Ampharetinae host several species adapted to chemosynthetic deep-sea ecosystems7, 25.

Group II introns are self-splicing mobile genetic elements typically found in mitochondrial and other organelle genomes in lower eukaryotes, microbes, algae and higher plants, and are reported to contain genes with mobile capability26,27,28. Within Bilateria metazoans, group II introns were first described in the mitochondrial genome of the polychaete Nephtys sp.23, even though bilaterian mtDNA genomes were thought to be conserved in terms of gene content and lack introns17, 29. However, recent mitogenomic investigations have revealed a more common presence of Group II introns in the cox1 mitochondrial gene in some Annelid worms, including two Glycera species and one myzostomid Endomyzostoma30, 31. Based on previous phylogenetic analysis, Richter et al.30 demonstrated a close phylogenetic relationship between Nephtys sp. and Glycera introns, but less similarity with one of the two cox1 introns from Glycera fallax. The presence of introns in a few distantly-related annelid taxa makes mechanisms of intron acquisition and substitution rates of the relevant mtDNA regions unclear23. Although mitochondrial gene order is relatively conserved among annelids19, the presence or absence of such introns, their number and their association with unique or multiple genes with variable function suggests that annelid mitochondrial genomes may exhibit more varibility than anticipated19, 20.

We sequenced mitochondrial genomes of an abundant ampharetid (Decemunciger sp.) sampled from wood-fall blocks experimentally implanted for 12 months at ~1600 m depth on the East Pacific US margin. We detected differences in mitochondrial gene order relative to previously reported Terebellomorpha mt genomes18. Unexpectedly, we detected three intragenetic regions within cox1 (Group II intron), nad1 and nad4 genes. Furthermore, we conducted a phylogenetic analysis of Ampharetidae based on available mt genomes and transcriptomic data to further explore ampharetid evolutionary history.

Results and Discussion

Genome assemblies and description

Using Illumina sequence data from three individuals of a deep-sea ampharetid annelid abundant on wood-falls in the deep NE Pacific, we assembled complete mitochondrial genomes. The three individuals were morphologically identified to potentialy new species of Decemunciger, and all three assembled genomes had a 100% identical cox1 gene. There is no previous molecular data to confirm the identity of Decemunciger sampled in wood blocks separated by over 400 km on the Oregon-Washington margin, with the paratype described from the Atlantic32. Using a BLAST-based approach33, we identified mtDNA contigs that were roughly 15,000–16,000 bp in size from the genome assembly. The integrity of these contigs was confirmed by mapping sequence reads to the assembly 34. Decemunciger sp. mt genome has 16,703–16,974 bp without the introns, which is similar to the ampharetids Eclysippe vanelli (16,547; EU23968718) and is slightly longer than the other ampharetid Auchenoplax crinita (13,759 bp; FJ976041 incomplete) and the Terebellomorpha Pista cristata (15,894 bp; EU239688). The complete mtDNA of Decemunciger sp. is approximately 19 kb long (19,003 to 19,274 bp; Table 1), with 2,300 bp of introns (Fig. 1; Table 1). Other previously studied annelids have mtDNA sizes between 14,414 and 22,058 bp14, 19, 20, 22, 30. Although the mitochondrial genome size varied slightly among our three specimens, the intergenic region between nad2 and cox1 showed the greatest variation.

Table 1 Genome size, coverage, coverage depth and base composition of assembled Decemunciger sp.
Figure 1

Mitochondrial gene order of Decemunciger sp. sequenced in this study. Conserved gene clusters are represented in different colors as in Jennings and Halanych (2005) and Zhong et al.18. Lines between genomes highlight regions with different gene order. Red box indicates the introns detected within Decemunciger sp. mtDNA.

For each mitochondrial genome sequenced herein, the genome was composed of 37 genes, with all 13 protein-coding, 2 ribosomal rRNAs and 22 tRNAs29 (Fig. 1). All genes encoded on the same strand, typical of other annelids20. As observed in other Terebellomorpha, Decemunciger sp. mtDNA is AT rich (65.1% AT) in the coding regions (CDS) (Table 1). Mitochondrial gene orders of Decemunciger sp. mtDNA differ from E. vanelli in relation to positions of nad4, nad4L and nad5 genes, and differs from Terebellides stroemi (Trichobranchidae) and Pista cristata (Terebellidae) in the positions of tRNAs (Fig. 1 18, 20). The difference in protein coding gene order between the ampharetids Decemunciger sp. and E. vanelli support a higher varibility in gene order within Ampharetidae19, 20. A recent analysis of Syllidae also showed marked variability on the order of protein enconding genes, with four distinct gene orders14. With only 89 complete mtDNAs sequenced from annelids14, 15, 19, 20, 22, more variation in gene orders will certainly be uncovered. Slight differences in the number of tRNAs were also revealed in Decemunciger sp., if compared to previous Terebelliformia mtDNA. Terebellides stroemi and P. cristata have two copies of the methionine tRNA gene in their mtDNA, whereas only one copy was present in Decemunciger sp. mtDNA, as previously observed on the ampharetid E. vanelli 18. Changes in the postion of tRNAs between Decemunciger sp. and the other Terebellomorpha were also observed (Fig. 1), and are common in bilaterian mtDNAs29.

Introns in Decemunciger mtDNA

Mitochondrial genomes of the three Decemunciger sp. individuals revealed the presence of introns within the cox1, nad1 and nad4 genes, which is the first report to date of multiple introns in distinct mitochondrial genes from Bilaterians. Introns within the cox1, nad1 and nad4 genes were 1648, 390 and 262 bp long, respectively. All introns were the same size across the three assembled genomes and none of these introns coded a protein, but presented palindromic sequences at both ends (based on a blast search results). The cox1 intron contained a 390 bp ORF for an intron maturase 2 type II transcriptase (blastp e-value 7.68e-08), which was similar to other Group II introns reported in annelids23, 30. Although ORFs were not found in introns from nad1 and nad4 genes, these regions could possibly be derived form ancient transposible elements which have since lost any function. However, the intron maturase enzyme in the cox1 intron may assist transposition of these elements35. Another possibility is that the nad1 and nad4 introns are discontinuous parts of one transposible element split among those genes and can be trans-spliced to form a functional intron27, 36. These mechanisms have been observed in higher plants; if true here, would be the first known case of trans-complementation of introns in annelid mitochondrial genes.

The insertion position into the cox1 gene and size of the introns were identical within the three Decemunciger mitochondrial genomes sequenced. Multiple introns were first identified on mitochondrial genes (cox1 and nad5) of sea anemones (Group I intron37, and recently Group II introns have been reported on a cox1 gene of a Nephtydae (Nephtys sp.) and glycerid polychaetes23, 30. Intron sizes, their position within the cox1 gene and their coding protein sequences, differ between Nephtys sp., Decemunciger sp. and Glycera spp., consistent with distinct episodes of intron gain in these annelid lineages23, 38. Phylogenetic differences in the ORF region between introns are evident (Fig. 2). Different insertion positions of introns within cox1 genes of Decemunciger sp., Nephtys sp. and Glycera spp. may be a result of variable intronic target sites (IEP) within the mitochondrial genome (Fig. 2)27, 30. The cox1 intron in Nephtys sp. has 1819 bp, whereas it is slightly shorter (1647 bp) in Decemunciger sp. The Nephtys sp. intron has an ORF region of 525 bp coding a reverse transcriptase enzime, whereas the 390 bp region within the Decemunciger sp. cox1 gene translates into a type II intron maturase enzyme. Amino acid sequences of both Nephtys sp. and Decemunciger sp. introns are also only 16% similar, further supporting independent events of insertion in a scenario of “late intron-gain” for annelids23, 38.

Figure 2

Phylogenetic position of Annelid group II introns (black colour) including Decemunciger sp. cox1 intron ORF and previous tree by Richter et al.30, Valles et al.23 and Zimmerly et al.27. Outlined are host species. Color-codes as in Richter et al.30: Green – chloroplast group II intron-encoded ORFs; Blue – Mitochondrial group II intron-encoded ORFs and RED – Bacterial group II intron-encoded ORFs. Genbank numbers are given in Richter et al.30.

Nephtys sp. and Decemunciger sp. represent distinct linneages among Annelida, which likely inherited introns from separate viral vectors. The limited presence of introns may also suggest a high rate of intron loss among lineages. The loss of introns in genomes is generally related to fast replication rates observed, for example, in microbes in a process known as “genome streamlining”27. Since mitochondrial DNA is considered to possess a fast evolutionary rate39, introns may be rapidly removed from mitochondrial genes. Further complete mtDNA sequencing will very likely reveal new patterns of introns as usual mitochondrial barcoding (e.g. cox1) in marine invertebrates are based on short (about 600 bp) sequences that would not detect these introns.

Ampharetid phylogeny based on mtDNA

Amino acid (AA) sequences of protein coding genes from the three mitochondrial genomes from this study, from published genomes in GenBank and from transcriptomic data (see Table 2) were used to reconstruct a phylogenetic relationship of Decemunciger sp. within Ampharetidae. Phylogenetic relationships of ampharetids were infered using maximum likelihood (ML) analysis from a dataset with the 10 protein-coding and 2 rRNA mitochondrial genes (see methods). The dataset contained 3,024 amino acid residues after trimming using Gblocks and the resulting ML analysis yielded a tree topology with relatively high bootstrap support values for the division of Ampharetidae subfamilies Melinninae and Ampharetinae11, 18 (Fig. 3). Ampharetidae was recovered as a monophyletic group, but our analysis did not include Alvinellidae7, 25. Melinninae and Ampharetinae were recovered as sister taxa, which supports current phylogenetic analysis25. Ampharetinae was also recovered as a monophyletic clade with strong support in the amino acid dataset, consistent with previous molecular and morphological analyses7, 11, 18, 25. Whithin Ampharetinae, the Decemunciger lineage was sister to a strongly supported clade (bs = 100) comprised of Eclysippe, Auchenoplax, Samytha and Amphisamytha species (Fig. 3, Supplemental Fig. S1). Decemunciger has also marked morphological similarities (e.g. branchiae position and number) with the vent ampharetid genus Paramytha gen nov., which is a sister group to other vent/seep Ampharetinae clades based on cox1, 16S and 18S genes25, 32. In summary, our phylogenetic analysis support Decemunciger as within the Ampharetinae, within a clade comprised of several described species from chemosynthetic ecosystems in the North Atlantic and Arctic basins.

Figure 3

Maximum likelihood tree obtained when analyzing amino acid sequences from mtDNA protein coding genes. All nodes were supported with 100% bootstrap value (bs = 100) unless otherwise noted. Dashed lines indicate subfamilies represented within Ampharetidae.


Genome assembly, annotation and mapping

Three Ampharetid specimens (A3359, A3372–1 and A3372–2) were collected from 1.5 kg blocks of douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesi) experimentally deployed on the seafloor for 15 months and recovered via accoustic release using the R/V Oceanus. Ampharetid A3359 was sampled from one wood block recovered from 1605 m depth on Jun 22nd 2014 (43°54.22 N; 125°10.238 W), whereas ampharetids A3372–1 and A3372–2 were sampled from wood blocks recovered about 400 km north from the previous site at 1596 m depth on Jun 27th 2014 (47°57.462 N; 126o02.118 W). Morphological observations indicate that all the three specimens belonged to the ampharetid genus Decemunciger sp. Specimens were immediately preserved onboard in 95–100% ethanol and later transferred to Auburn University.

DNA was extracted using the DNeasy Blood & Tissue Kit (Qiagen) following manufacture’s protocols. Sequencing of genomic DNA was performed by The Genomic Services Lab at the Hudson Alpha Institute in Huntsville, Alabama on an Illumina HiSeq 2500 platform (San Diego, California) using 2 × 150 paired-end v4 chemistry. Paired-end reads were assembled de novo using Ray 2.2.0 with k-mer = 3134. Contigs of interest where identified by using blast with previously published terebellomorph mtDNA genomes18 against the assembled genomic data. Annotation of the 13 protein-coding genes, 2 ribosomal RNAs and tRNAs was conducted initially with MITOS web server40, followed by manual genome annotation in Artemis41. Start and stop positions of genes were confirmed by BLASTn and BLASTp33 searches against the partial mitochondrial genome from Eclysippe vanelli (GenBank Accession EU239687) as well as manual inspection.

The presence of introns within coding mitochondrial genes was confirmed by mapping the paired Illumina reads against the assembled mitochondrial genome to check for coverage in each coding region and near the intronic reads34 (Supplementary Fig. S2). Reads were mapped with Bowtie242, indexed and sorted with Samtools and visually checked with Tablet software43. Identity on introns was aided by Blast searches when possible.

Transcriptomic data generation and assembly for phylogenetic analysis

Upon collection, all specimens were either stored at −80 °C, in ethanol or preserved in RNAlater (Life Technologies Inc.). Due to a limiting amount of tissue, only RNA was extracted since mitochondrial protein-coding and ribosomal RNA genes, which were used in mitogenomic analysis, can be recovered from transcriptome sequencing34, 44. RNA extraction and cDNA preparation for high-throughput sequencing followed45. Briefly, total RNA was extracted using TRIzol (Invitrogen) and purified using the RNeasy kit (Qiagen) with on-column DNase digestion. Next, single strand cDNA libraries were reverse transcribed using the SMART cDNA Library Construction kit (Clontech) followed by double-stranded cDNA synthesis using the Advantage 2 PCR system (Clontech). Illumina sequencing library preparation and sequencing of Lysippe labiata, Samytha sexcirrata, Samytha californiensis, Amphisamytha bioculata, Amphicteis gunneri, Auchenoplax crinita and Melinna maculata were performed by The Genomic Services Lab at the Hudson Alpha Institute in Huntsville, Alabama using 2 × 100 paired-end sequencing on an Illumina HiSeq 2000 platform (San Diego, California).

Prior to assembly, Illumina paired-end transcriptome sequence data were digitally normalized to a k-mer coverage of 30 using 46. Remaining reads were then assembled using Trinity r2013-02-25 with default settings47. Mitochondrial protein-coding genes and ribosomal RNAs were identified by TBLSTX and BLASTN33, respectively (using the recovered E. vanelli mt genome as query).

Phylogenetic analysis

Fourteen taxa were included in the phylogenetic analysis. Pista cristata (Terebellidae) and Terebellides stroemi (Trichobranchidae) were acquired from GenBank (Table 2) and selected as outgroups based on data availability as well as current understanding of annelid evolutionary history15, 20. To assist in phylogenetic analysis and check the previous incomplete assembly of the ampharetid mtDNA Eclysippe vanelli 18, we assembled a new complete mitochondrial genome from the ampharetid E. vanelli. The assembled E. vanelli genome has an identical gene order with the previous incomplete genome and a cox1 amino acid identity of 99.8% with the cox1 gene from the incomplete E. vanelli genome18. We used the complete E. vanelli genes for phylogenetic analysis (indicated below), and included genes from transcriptomic assembly from seven other species of interest.

Table 2 List of taxa included in the Ampharetidae phylogenetic analysis, with genbank assession numbers and references to published sequences.

Our data set was based on amino acid sequences from 10 mitochondrial protein-coding genes (cox1, cox2, cox3, cob, atp6, nad1, nad2, nad4, nad5, nad6) and two ribosomal RNA genes (rrnS and rrnL). nad4l, atp8 and nad3 sequences were excluded due to limited number of recovered sequences from transcriptome data. Each of the 12 genes was individually aligned using MAFFT48 followed by manual correction. The selected genes were then trimmed using the defalut setting in Gblocks49 to remove ambiguously aligned regions. Genes were then concatenated into final supermatrix datasets using FASconCAT50 for downstream phylogenetic analysis. Phylogenetic relationships of ampharetids were infered using maximum likelihood (ML) in RAxML51. Prior to ML analyses, PartitionFinderV1.1.152 was used to evaluate best-fit partition schemes and associated best-fit substitution models for both datasets. Topological robustness for the ML analysis was evaluated with 100 replicates of fast-bootstrapping.

Intron phylogeny

Phylogenetic position of group II introns was compared with the alignment of which built upon an analysis by Richter et al.30, 53, 54. The mitochondrial group II introns from cox1 genes of the Annelids Glycera fallax, Glycera unicornis and Nephtys sp. were analyzed and compared to the cox1 intron ORF from Decemunciger sp. and other chroloplast and bacterial intronic ORFs. The Maximum likelihood analysis was conducted with RAxML v.8.0.5 under the substitution model LG + I + G + F. Bootstrap support values (>50%) from 1,000 pseudoreplicates are given at the nodes. Colorcodes were defined accordingly to Richter et al.30, where group II intron-encoded ORFs known from chloroplast genomes are highlighted in green, mitochondrial genomes in blue, and bacterial genomes in red. GenBank numbers from intron sequences used in this analysis are given in Richter et al.30.


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We thank all members of the science teams and RV Oceanus crew of BOWLS cruises OC1304A and OC1406B for help at sea. Thanks also to Dr. Michael Reuscher for the identification of ampharetids. AFB was supported by a CNPq PDE grant 200504/2015-0. This work was supported by US National Science Foundation grant no. OCE-1155703 to CRS and no. OCE-1155188 to KMH for the BOWLs project and DEB-1036537 for the WormNet II project. This is Molette Biology Laboratory contribution 62 and Auburn University Marine Biology Program contribution 155.

Author information




Conceived and designed the experiments: C.R.S., K.M.H. Performed the experiments: A.F.B., Y.L., C.R.S., K.M.H. Analyzed the data: A.F.B., Y.L., K.M.H. Contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools: K.M.H., C.R.S. Wrote the paper: A.F.B., Y.L., C.R.S., K.M.H.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Angelo F. Bernardino or Kenneth M. Halanych.

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The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Additional information

Accession codes: Mitochondrial genomes are deposited in GenBank under acession codes KY742027, KY774370 and KY774371. Genes used in Ampharetid phylogenetic analysis are deposited under acession codes KY972369-KY972378.

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Bernardino, A.F., Li, Y., Smith, C.R. et al. Multiple introns in a deep-sea Annelid (Decemunciger: Ampharetidae) mitochondrial genome. Sci Rep 7, 4295 (2017).

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