Distinct patterns of genetic variation in Pristionchus pacificus and Caenorhabditis elegans, two partially selfing nematodes with cosmopolitan distribution


Ralf J. Sommer, Max Planck Institut für Entwicklungsbiologie, Abteilung für Evolutionsbiologie, Spemannstr. 37–39, 72076 Tübingen, Germany. Fax: +49-7071-601498; E-mail:


Hermaphroditism has evolved several times independently in nematodes. The model organism Caenorhabditis elegans and Pristionchus pacificus are self-fertile hermaphrodites with rare facultative males. Both species are members of different families: C. elegans belongs to the Rhabditidae and P. pacificus to the Diplogastridae. Also, both species differ in their ecology: C. elegans is a soil-dwelling nematode that is often found in compost heaps. In contrast, field studies in Europe and North America indicate that Pristionchus nematodes are closely associated with scarab beetles. In C. elegans, several recent studies have found low genetic diversity and rare out-crossing events. Little is known about diversity levels and population structure in free-living hermaphroditic nematodes outside the genus Caenorhabditis. Taking a comparative approach, we analyse patterns of molecular diversity and linkage disequilibrium in 18 strains of P. pacificus from eight countries and four continents. Mitochondrial sequence data of P. pacificus isolates reveal a substantially higher genetic diversity on a global scale when compared to C. elegans. A mitochondrial-derived hermaphrodite phylogeny shows little geographic structuring, indicating several worldwide dispersal events. Amplified fragment length polymorphism and single strand conformation polymorphism analyses demonstrate a high degree of genome-wide linkage disequilibrium, which also extends to the mitochondrial genome. Together, these findings indicate distinct patterns of genetic variation of the two species. The low level of genetic diversity observed in C. elegans might reflect a recent human-associated dispersal, whereas the P. pacificus diversity might reflect a long-lasting and ongoing insect association. Thus, despite similar lifestyle characteristics in the laboratory, the reproductive mode of hermaphroditism with rare facultative males can result in distinct genetic variability patterns in different ecological settings.