Plastid-bearing cryptophytes like Cryptomonas contain four genomes in a cell, the nucleus, the nucleomorph, the plastid genome and the mitochondrial genome. Comparative phylogenetic analyses encompassing DNA sequences from three different genomes were performed on nineteen photosynthetic and four colorless Cryptomonas strains. Twenty-three rbcL genes and fourteen nuclear SSU rDNA sequences were newly sequenced to examine the impact of photosynthesis loss on codon usage in the rbcL genes, and to compare the rbcL gene phylogeny in terms of tree topology and evolutionary rates with phylogenies inferred from nuclear ribosomal DNA (concatenated SSU rDNA, ITS2 and partial LSU rDNA), and nucleomorph SSU rDNA.
Largely congruent branching patterns and accelerated evolutionary rates were found in nucleomorph SSU rDNA and rbcL genes in a clade that consisted of photosynthetic and colorless species suggesting a coevolution of the two genomes. The extremely accelerated rates in the rbcL phylogeny correlated with a shift from selection to mutation drift in codon usage of two-fold degenerate NNY codons comprising the amino acids asparagine, aspartate, histidine, phenylalanine, and tyrosine. Cysteine was the sole exception. The shift in codon usage seemed to follow a gradient from early diverging photosynthetic to late diverging photosynthetic or heterotrophic taxa along the branches. In the early branching taxa, codon preferences were changed in one to two amino acids, whereas in the late diverging taxa, including the colorless strains, between four and five amino acids showed changes in codon usage.
Nucleomorph and plastid gene phylogenies indicate that loss of photosynthesis in the colorless Cryptomonas strains examined in this study possibly was the result of accelerated evolutionary rates that started already in photosynthetic ancestors. Shifts in codon usage are usually considered to be caused by changes in functional constraints and in gene expression levels. Thus, the increasing influence of mutation drift on codon usage along the clade may indicate gradually relaxed constraints and reduced expression levels on the rbcL gene, finally correlating with a loss of photosynthesis in the colorless Cryptomonas paramaecium strains.