Diatoms, unicellular eukaryotic algae with a siliceous skeleton, offer the rare advantage of displaying both an extensive fossil record and numerous extant species, thus providing the opportunity of confronting molecular and paleontological data in a protist group. A portion of the 28S ribosomal RNA was sequenced from 5 diatoms, the divergence times of which are well known. The nucleotide substitution rate was estimated in these unicellular eukaryotes and compared with the rate of multicellular eukaryotes, using a broad data base comprising metazoans and metaphytes. When using fossil record derived divergence times, our results show that the nucleotide substitution rate is about 5 times faster in diatoms than in chordates. But, when using the relative rate test, it is observed that, over a long time period, the nucleotide substitution rate may in fact have been slightly slower in diatoms than in chordates. For this contradiction, two possible explanations are proposed: (i) a failure of the relative rate test, (ii) a gap in the pre‐Jurassic diatom fossil record. We have checked that our results concerning the relative rate test were valid. Thus, the second hypothesis, which implies pre‐Jurassic diatom evolution, in fact already suggested by some non‐molecular evidences, is favoured. Decoupling of morphological differentiation from genetic speciation also appears to have occurred and may account in part for the underestimation of the dates of recent cladogenesis events.
Journal of Evolutionary Biology – Wiley
Published: Mar 1, 1994
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