Numerous group I introns with variable distributions in the ribosomal DNA of a lichen fungus.
The length of the small subunit ribosomal DNA (SSU rDNA) differs significantly among individuals from natural populations of the ascomycetous lichen complex Cladonia chlorophaea. The sequence of the 3' region of the SSU rDNA from two individuals, chosen to represent the shortest and longest sequences, revealed multiple insertions within a region that otherwise aligned with a 520-nucleotide sequence of the SSU rDNA in Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The high degree of variability in SSU rDNA size can be accounted for by different numbers of insertions; one individual had two group I introns and the second had five introns, two of which were clearly related to introns at identical positions in the other individual. Yet, introns in different positions, whether within an individual or between individuals, were not similar in sequence. The distribution of introns at three of the positions is consistent with either intron loss or acquisition, and clearly indicates the dynamic variability in this region of the nuclear genome. All seven insertions, which ranged in size from 210 to 228 nucleotides, had the conserved sequence and secondary structural elements of group I introns. The variation in distribution and sequence of group I introns within a short highly conserved region of rDNA presents a unique opportunity for examining the molecular evolution and mobility of group I introns within a systematics framework.
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