In flowering plants and animals the most common ribosomal RNA genes (rDNA) organisation is that in which 35S (encoding 18S-5.8S-26S rRNA) and 5S genes are physically separated occupying different chromosomal loci. However, recent observations established that both genes have been unified to a single 35S-5S unit in the genus Artemisia (Asteraceae), a genomic arrangement typical of primitive eukaryotes such as yeast, among others. Here we aim to reveal the origin, distribution and mechanisms leading to the linked organisation of rDNA in the Asteraceae by analysing unit structure (PCR, Southern blot, sequencing), gene copy number (quantitative PCR) and chromosomal position (FISH) of 5S and 35S rRNA genes in ~200 species representing the family diversity and other closely related groups.
Dominant linked rDNA genotype was found within three large groups in subfamily Asteroideae: tribe Anthemideae (93% of the studied cases), tribe Gnaphalieae (100%) and in the "Heliantheae alliance" (23%). The remaining five tribes of the Asteroideae displayed canonical non linked arrangement of rDNA, as did the other groups in the Asteraceae. Nevertheless, low copy linked genes were identified among several species that amplified unlinked units. The conserved position of functional 5S insertions downstream from the 26S gene suggests a unique, perhaps retrotransposon-mediated integration event at the base of subfamily Asteroideae. Further evolution likely involved divergence of 26S-5S intergenic spacers, amplification and homogenisation of units across the chromosomes and concomitant elimination of unlinked arrays. However, the opposite trend, from linked towards unlinked arrangement was also surmised in few species indicating possible reversibility of these processes.
Our results indicate that nearly 25% of Asteraceae species may have evolved unusual linked arrangement of rRNA genes. Thus, in plants, fundamental changes in intrinsic structure of rDNA units, their copy number and chromosomal organisation may occur within relatively short evolutionary time. We hypothesize that the 5S gene integration within the 35S unit might have repeatedly occurred during plant evolution, and probably once in Asteraceae.