Extensive and Evolutionarily Persistent Mitochondrial tRNA Editing in Velvet Worms (Phylum Onychophora)

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Mitochondrial genomes of onychophorans (velvet worms) present an interesting problem: Some previous studies reported them lacking several transfer RNA (tRNA) genes, whereas others found that all their tRNA genes were present but severely reduced. To resolve this discrepancy, we determined complete mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences of the onychophorans Oroperipatus sp. and Peripatoides sympatrica as well as cDNA sequences from 14 and 10 of their tRNAs, respectively. We show that tRNA genes in these genomes are indeed highly reduced and encode truncated molecules, which are restored to more conventional structures by extensive tRNA editing. During this editing process, up to 34 nucleotides are added to the tRNA sequences encoded in Oroperipatus sp. mtDNA, rebuilding the aminoacyl acceptor stem, the TΨC arm, and in some extreme cases, the variable arm and even a part of the anticodon stem. The editing is less extreme in P. sympatrica in which at least a part of the TΨC arm is always encoded in mtDNA. When the entire TΨC arm is added de novo in Oroperipatus sp., the sequence of this arm is either identical or similar among different tRNA species, yet the sequences show substantial variation for each tRNA. These observations suggest that the arm is rebuilt, at least in part, by a template-independent mechanism and argue against the alternative possibility that tRNA genes or their parts are imported from the nucleus. By contrast, the 3′ end of the aminoacyl acceptor stem is likely restored by a template-dependent mechanism. The extreme tRNA editing reported here has been preserved for >140 My as it was found in both extant families of onychophorans. Furthermore, a similar type of tRNA editing may be present in several other groups of arthropods, which show a high degree of tRNA gene reduction in their mtDNA.

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