Cryptic structure of species complexes confounds an accurate accounting of biological diversity in natural systems. Also, cryptic sibling species often become specialized to different ecological conditions, for instance, with host specialization by cryptic parasite species. The fungus Microbotryum violaceum causes anther smut disease in plants of Caryophyllaceae, and the degree of specialization and gene flow between strains on different hosts have been controversial in the literature. We conducted molecular phylogenetic analyses on M. violaceum from 23 host species and different geographic origins using three single-copy nuclear genes (β-tub, γ-tub, and Ef1α). Congruence between the phylogenies identified several lineages that evolved independently for a long time. The lineages had overlapping geographic ranges but were highly specialized on different hosts. These results thus suggest that M. violaceum is a complex of highly specialized sibling species. Two incongruencies between the individual gene phylogenies and one intragene recombination event were detected at basal nodes, suggesting ancient introgression events or speciation events via hybridizations. However, incongruencies and recombination were not detected among terminal branches, indicating that the potentials for cross-infection and experimental hybridization are often not sufficient to suggest that introgressions would likely persist in nature.
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Vol. 61 • No. 1