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Restricted distribution and limited gene flow in the model ciliate Tetrahymena thermophila


Correspondence: Rebecca A. Zufall, Fax: +1 713 743 2636; E-mail:


The biogeography of microbial eukaryotes has long been debated, but few phylogeographic data have been available to assess whether protists tend to have ubiquitous or endemic distributions. We addressed this issue in the ciliate Tetrahymena thermophila, a highly successful model system in cell and molecular biology. We found that this species has a distribution that is restricted to the Eastern United States, with high diversity in the northeast and low diversity across the rest of its distribution. We find high levels of population subdivision, low rates of migration and significant isolation by distance, supporting the moderate endemicity model of protist biogeography. This restricted gene flow may be a result of small population size, which would reduce the probability of migration events, or the inability to establish after migration. This work lays the foundation for T. thermophila to become a valuable model system for studying population biology.