A common core of secondary structure of the internal transcribed spacer 2 (ITS2) throughout the Eukaryota

The ongoing characterization of novel species creates the need for a molecular marker which can be used for species- and, simultaneously, for mega-systematics. Recently, the use of the internal transcribed spacer 2 (ITS2) sequence was suggested, as it shows a high divergence in sequence with an assumed conservation in structure. This hypothesis was mainly based on small-scale analyses, comparing a limited number of sequences. Here, we report a large-scale analysis of more than 54,000 currently known ITS2 sequences with the goal to evaluate the hypothesis of a conserved structural core and to assess its use for automated large-scale phylogenetics. Structure prediction revealed that the previously described core structure can be found for more than 5000 sequences in a wide variety of taxa within the eukaryotes, indicating that the core secondary structure is indeed conserved. This conserved structure allowed an automated alignment of extremely divergent sequences as exemplified for the ITS2 sequences of a ctenophorean eumetazoon and a volvocalean green alga. All classified sequences, together with their structures can be accessed at www.biozentrum.uni-wuerzburg.de/bioinformatik/projects/ITS2.html. Furthermore, we found that, although sample sequences are known for most major taxa, there exists a profound divergence in coverage, which might become a hindrance for general usage. In summary, our analysis strengthens the potential of ITS2 as a general phylogenetic marker and provides a data source for further ITS2-based analyses.

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