Seed plant phylogeny inferred from all three plant genomes: Monophyly of extant gymnosperms and origin of Gnetales from conifers
Phylogenetic relationships among the five groups of extant seed plants are presently quite unclear. For example, morphological studies consistently identify the Gnetales as the extant sister group to angiosperms (the so-called "anthophyte" hypothesis), whereas a number of molecular studies recover gymnosperm monophyly, and few agree with the morphology-based placement of Gnetales. To better resolve these and other unsettled issues, we have generated a new molecular data set of mitochondrial small subunit rRNA sequences, and have analyzed these data together with comparable data sets for the nuclear small subunit rRNA gene and the chloroplast rbcL gene. All nuclear analyses strongly ally Gnetales with a monophyletic conifers, whereas all mitochondrial analyses and those chloroplast analyses that take into account saturation of third-codon position transitions actually place Gnetales within conifers, as the sister group to the Pinaceae. Combined analyses of all three genes strongly support this latter relationship, which to our knowledge has never been suggested before. The combined analyses also strongly support monophyly of extant gymnosperms, with cycads identified as the basal-most group of gymnosperms, Ginkgo as the next basal, and all conifers except for Pinaceae as sister to the Gnetales + Pinaceae clade. According to these findings, the Gnetales may be viewed as extremely divergent conifers, and the many morphological similarities between angiosperms and Gnetales (e.g., double fertilization and flower-like reproductive structures) arose independently.