The role of plastids in plant speciation


  • Dedicated to Professor Olga Kulaeva on the occasion of her 80th birthday.

Stephan Greiner, Max-Planck-Institut für Molekulare Pflanzenphysiologie, Wissenschaftspark Golm, Am Mühlenberg 1, D-14476 Potsdam, Golm, Germany. Fax: +49 331 567 87 01; E-mail:


Understanding the molecular basis of how new species arise is a central question and prime challenge in evolutionary biology and includes understanding how genomes diversify. Eukaryotic cells possess an integrated compartmentalized genetic system of endosymbiotic ancestry. The cellular subgenomes in nucleus, mitochondria and plastids communicate in a complex way and co-evolve. The application of hybrid and cybrid technologies, most notably those involving interspecific exchanges of plastid and nuclear genomes, has uncovered a multitude of species-specific nucleo-organelle interactions. Such interactions can result in plastome–genome incompatibilities, which can phenotypically often be recognized as hybrid bleaching, hybrid variegation or disturbance of the sexual phase. The plastid genome, because of its relatively low number of genes, can serve as a valuable tool to investigate the origin of these incompatibilities. In this article, we review progress on understanding how plastome–genome co-evolution contributes to speciation. We genetically classify incompatible phenotypes into four categories. We also summarize genetic, physiological and environmental influence and other possible selection forces acting on plastid–nuclear co-evolution and compare taxa providing molecular access to the underlying loci. It appears that plastome–genome incompatibility can establish hybridization barriers, comparable to the Dobzhansky–Muller model of speciation processes. Evidence suggests that the plastid-mediated hybridization barriers associated with hybrid bleaching primarily arise through modification of components in regulatory networks, rather than of complex, multisubunit structures themselves that are frequent targets.