Phytopathogenic mollicutes, which include spiroplasmas and phytoplasmas, are cell wall-less bacteria that parasitize plant hosts and insect vectors. Knowledge of the evolution of these agents is important in understanding their biology. The availability of the first complete phytoplasma and several partial spiroplasma and phytoplasma genome sequences made possible an investigation of evolutionary relationships between phytopathogenic mollicutes and other micro-organisms, especially Gram-positive bacteria, using a comparative genomics approach. Genome data from a total of 41 bacterial species were used in the analysis. Sixty-one conserved proteins were selected from each species for the construction of a hypothetical phylogenetic tree. The genes encoding these selected proteins are among a core of genetic elements that constitute a hypothetical minimal genome. The proteins were concatenated into five superproteins according to their functional categories, and phylogenetic trees were reconstructed using distance, parsimony and likelihood methods. Phylogenetic trees based on the five sets of concatenated proteins were congruent in both clade topology and relative branching length. Spiroplasma kunkelii and phytoplasmas clustered together with other mollicutes, forming a monophyletic group. Phytoplasmas diverged from spiroplasmas and mycoplasmas at early stages in the evolution of mollicutes. Branch lengths on the phylogenetic trees were noticeably longer in the Mollicutes clade, suggesting that the genes encoding the five sets of proteins evolved at a greater rate in this clade than in other clades. This observation reinforces the concept that mollicutes have rapidly evolving genomes.
Elm yellows group (16SrV) phytoplasmas, which are associated with devastating diseases in elm, grapevine, blackberry, cherry, peach and several other plant species in America, Europe and Asia, represent one of the most diverse phytoplasma clusters. On the basis of phylogenetic analysis of 16S rDNA sequences, elm yellows group phytoplasmas form a discrete subclade within the phytoplasma clade. Three phylogenetic parameters, namely 16S rRNA, ribosomal protein and secY genes, have been evaluated for their usefulness in differentiating elm yellows group phytoplasmas. RFLP analysis of 16S rRNA sequences differentiated the elm yellows group phytoplasmas into five subgroups. Twelve RFLP subgroups were differentiated on the basis of ribosomal protein and 13 were differentiated using secY gene sequences. Phylogenetic analysis of the ribosomal protein genes and secY gene alone or in combination indicated that the subgroups constitute 12 genetically distinct lineages, each of which appears to have evolved under different ecological constraints such as specific vector or plant hosts. On the basis of unique DNA and biological properties, it is proposed that the elm yellows phytoplasma EY1T represents a novel taxon, ‘Candidatus Phytoplasma ulmi’.