Distinct isolates of the invertebrate pathogenic alga Helicosporidium sp., collected from different insect hosts and different geographic locations, were processed to sequence the 18S rDNA and β-tubulin genes. The sequences were analyzed to assess genetic variation within the genus Helicosporidium and to design Helicosporidium-specific 18S rDNA primers. The specificity of these primers was demonstrated by testing not only on the Helicosporidium sp. isolates, but also on two trebouxiophyte algae known to be close Helicosporidium relatives, Prototheca wickerhamii and Prototheca zopfii. The genus-specific primers were used to develop a culture-independent assay aimed at detecting the presence of Helicosporidium spp. in environmental waters. The assay was based on the PCR amplification of 18SrDNA gene fragments from metagenomic DNA preparations, and it resulted in the amplification of detectable products for all sampled sites. Phylogenetic analyses that included the environmental sequences demonstrated that all amplification products clustered in a strongly supported, monophyletic Helicosporidium clade, thereby validating the metagenomic approach and the taxonomic origin of the produced environmental sequences. In addition, the phylogenetic analyses established that Helicosporidium spp. isolated from coleopteran hosts are more closely related to each other than they are to the isolate collected from a dipteran host. Finally, the phylogenetic trees depicted intergeneric relationships that supported a Helicosporidium-Prototheca cluster but did not support a Helicosporidium-Coccomyxa grouping, suggesting that pathogenicity to invertebrates evolved at least twice independently within the trebouxiophyte green algae.
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