MOTUs, Morphology, and Biodiversity Estimation: A Case Study Using Nematodes of the Suborder Criconematina and a Conserved 18S DNA Barcode

Thomas Powers, Timothy Harris, Rebecca Higgins, Peter Mullin, Lisa Sutton, Kirsten Powers


DNA barcodes are increasingly used to provide an estimate of biodiversity for small, cryptic organisms like nematodes. Nucleotide sequences generated by the barcoding process are often grouped, based on similarity, into molecular operational taxonomic units (MOTUs). In order to get a better understanding of the taxonomic resolution of a 3’ 592-bp 18S rDNA barcode, we have analyzed 100 MOTUs generated from 214 specimens in the nematode suborder Criconematina. Previous research has demonstrated that the primer set for this barcode reliably amplifies all nematodes in the Phylum Nematoda. Included among the Criconematina specimens were 25 morphologically described species representing 12 genera. Using the most stringent definition of MOTU membership, where a single nucleotide difference is sufficient for the creation of a new MOTU, it was found that an MOTU can represent a subgroup of a species (e.g. Discocriconemella limitanea), a single species (Bakernema inaequale), or a species complex (MOTU 76). A maximum likelihood phylogenetic analysis of the MOTU dataset generated four major clades that were further analyzed by character-based barcode analysis. Fourteen of the 25 morphologically identified species had at least one putative diagnostic nucleotide identified by this character-based approach. These diagnostic nucleotides could be useful in biodiversity assessments when ambiguous results are encountered in database searches that use a distance-based metric for nucleotide sequence comparisons. Information and images regarding specimens examined during this study are available online.

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