The chloroplast gene trnK and its associated group II intron appear to be absent in a large and ancient clade that includes nearly 90% of fern species. However, the maturase protein encoded within the intron (matK) is still present and located on the boundary of a large-scale inversion. We surveyed the chloroplast genome sequence of clade-member Adiantum capillus-veneris for evidence of a still present but fragmented trnK intron. Lack of signature structural domains and sequence motifs in the genome indicate loss of the trnK intron through degradation in an ancestor of the clade. In plants, matK preferentially catalyzes splicing of the trnK intron, but may also have a generalist function, splicing other group II introns in the chloroplast genome. We therefore tested whether a shift in selective constraint has occurred after loss of the trnK intron. Using previously unavailable sequences for several ferns, we compared matK sequences of the intron-less fern clade to sequences from seed plants and ferns with the intron and found no significant differences in selection among lineages using multiple methods. We conclude that matK in ferns has maintained its apparently ancient and generalized function in chloroplasts, even after the loss of its co-evolved group II intron. Finally, we also present primers that will allow amplification and nucleotide sequencing of the phylogenetically useful matK gene in additional fern taxa.
Duffy, A. M., S. A. Kelchner, and P. G. Wolf. 2009. Conservation of selection on matK following an ancient loss of its flanking intron. Gene 438: 17-25.