Combined large and small subunit ribosomal RNA phylogenies support a basal position of the acoelomorph flatworms

M. J. Telford, A. E. Lockyer, C. Cartwright–Finch, D. T. J. Littlewood

Abstract

The phylogenetic position of the phylum Platyhelminthes has been re–evaluated in the past decade by analysis of diverse molecular datasets. The consensus is that the Rhabditophora + Catenulida, which includes most of the flatworm taxa, are not primitively simple basal bilaterians but are related to coelomate phyla such as molluscs. The status of two other groups of acoelomate worms, Acoela and Nemertodermatida, is less clear. Although many characteristics unite these two groups, initial molecular phylogenetic studies placed the Nemertodermatida within the Rhabditophora, but placed the Acoela at the base of the Bilateria, distant from other flatworms. This contradiction resulted in scepticism about the basal position of acoels and led to calls for further data. We have sequenced large subunit ribosomal RNA genes from 13 rhabditophorans + catenulids, three acoels and one nemertodermatid, tripling the available data. Our analyses strongly support a basal position of both acoels and nemertodermatids. Alternative hypotheses are significantly less well supported by the data. We conclude that the Nemertodermatida and Acoela are basal bilaterians and, owing to their unique body plan and embryogenesis, should be recognized as a separate phylum, the Acoelomorpha.