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Comparative analysis of chloroplast genomes of Pulsatilla species reveals evolutionary and taxonomic status of newly discovered endangered species Pulsatilla saxatilis



Pulsatilla saxatilis, a new species of the genus Pulsatilla has been discovered. The morphological information of this species has been well described, but its chloroplast genome characteristics and comparison with species of the same genus remain to be reported.


Our results showed that the total length of chloroplast (cp.) genome of P. saxatilis is 162,659 bp, with a GC content of 37.5%. The cp. genome contains 134 genes, including 90 known protein-coding genes, 36 tRNA genes, and 8 rRNA genes. P. saxatilis demonstrated similar characteristics to other species of genus Pulsatilla. Herein, we compared cp. genomes of 10 species, including P. saxatilis, and found that the cp. genomes of the genus Pulsatilla are extremely similar, with a length of 162,322–163,851 bp. Furthermore, The SSRs of Pulsatilla ranged from 10 to 22 bp in length. Among the four structural regions of the cp. genome, most long repeats and SSRs were detected in the LSC region, followed by that in the SSC region, and least in IRA/ IRB regions. The most common types of long repeats were forward and palindromic repeats, followed by reverse repeats, and only a few complementary repeats were found in 10 cp. genomes. We also analyzed nucleotide diversity and identified ccsA_ndhD, rps16_trnK-UUU, ccsA, and rbcL, which could be used as potential molecular markers for identification of Pulsatilla species. The results of the phylogenetic tree constructed by connecting the sequences of high variation regions were consistent with those of the cp. gene phylogenetic tree, and the species more closely related to P. saxatilis was identified as the P. campanella.


It was determined that the closest species to P. saxatilis is P. campanella, which is the same as the conclusion based on pollen grain characteristics, but different from the P. chinensis determined based on morphological characteristics. By revealing information on the chloroplast characteristics, development, and evolution of the cp. genome and the potential molecular markers, this study provides effective molecular data regarding the evolution, genetic diversity, and species identification of the genus Pulsatilla.

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Pasque flower, the blooming of which symbolizes the early spring, is a distinctive alpine plant with very beautiful bell-shaped flowers. The most common pasque bears bluish-purple or dark violet flowers; however, its different cultivars offer a variety of color choices, bearing white and reddish-purple flowers [1]. According to plant taxonomy, pasque flower is classified as Pulsatilla. The genus Pulsatilla is primarily distributed in Europe and Asia. It is mostly used as a horticultural flower in Europe [2] and has a long history of medicinal use in China and other parts of Asia. As such, the roots of many Pulsatilla species, including Pulsatilla chinensis [3], P. cernua, P. dahurica, and P. turczaninovii [4], are listed in the pharmacopoeia or provincial medical standards for the treatment of dysentery and other conditions. The most distinctive feature of Pulsatilla is its long, feathery persistent style, appearing as an old man from afar, hence the name “Bai tou weng”.

A new species of the genus Pulsatilla, P. saxatilis L.Xu & T.G.Kang (Fig. 1), was first discovered in the fourth Chinese materia medica resource inventory, where its primary morphological characteristics have been described in detail [5]. In morphology, P. saxatilis most closely resembles P. chinensis, with 3-foliolate leaves and solitary, erect flowers, only differing with respect to sepals of different colors and persistent styles of different lengths. The sepals of P. saxatilis are nearly white on the adaxial side and white to pale bluish-purple on the abaxial side, with the color of the base being the darkest, and the length of persistent style is 2–2.5 cm; these characteristics of P. saxatilis are distinct from those of P. chinensis, with purple sepals and persistent style being 3.5–6.5 cm long. The new species was discovered on a rocky cliff at an altitude of more than 1100 m on Baiyun Mountain in Fengcheng, Dandong, Liaoning Province. Owing to its highly narrow distribution area, it is being classified as endangered. Therefore, for the sake of ecological protection and basic research, it is crucial to take timely measures. This will not only promote the scientific development and utilization of P. saxatilis but will also prove significant for the species diversity and phylogenetic analysis of the genus Pulsatilla.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Pulsatilla saxatilis at flowering (A) and fruiting (B) stages

Plants have three sets of genomes: nuclear DNA, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), and chloroplast DNA (cpDNA). The nuclear genome contains abundant genetic information with significant genetic variation. The nuclear genome exhibits amphilepsis and bears a certain distinguishing ability for related species or subspecies. mtDNA is characterized by significant variation in genome size and structure, with the gene sequences being extremely conserved; they are the most conserved with the slowest evolution rate among those in the three sets of genomes. Owing to the lack of diversity, mtDNAs are typically not selected to be molecular markers for systematic studies. Furthermore, cpDNA generally comprises a covalently closed ring structure consisting of two large inverted repeats (IRs) as well as a large single-copy (LSC) and small single-copy (SSC) region [6]. The number and order of genes in cpDNA are relatively conservative, and its recombination is difficult to occur [7]. In most species, cpDNA is maternally inherited, has a relatively independent evolutionary path, and retains abundant genetic information in the evolutionary history [8]. Therefore, cpDNA has been widely used for studying plant genetic diversity, phylogeny, and evolution, as well as species identification and classification [9]. Phylogenetic trees constructed using only one or a combination of a few genes sometimes lack high resolution owing to insufficient loci information, horizontal gene transfer, presence of paralogous genes, and heterogeneity of gene evolution rate. Therefore, complete genome data is vital.

The primary reason of a species being endangered is the decrease in genetic diversity, which ultimately leads to a decrease in ecological adaptability. Therefore, an increasing number of studies are utilizing cp. genome to investigate the genetic diversity of endangered species and help establish protection measures [10]. Therefore, cp. genome can not only be used for species identification and molecular breeding research but also to provide a molecular basis for the improvement of yield and quality of important cash crops and horticultural varieties, as well as the protection of rare and endangered plants [11, 12].

Given that the genomic information and phylogeny of the newly discovered species P. saxatilis remain to be reported, herein, we sequenced and assembled cp. genome and annotated its genes and submitted the data to NCBI. This information is of vital significance to study the genetic and phylogenetic evolution, conservation, and development of P. saxatilis. The nine foreign species of Pulsatilla cp. genome [13], the information of which is submitted in NCBI, were excluded from this study owing to problems in gene assembly and failures in downloading and viewing the original data. Therefore, reliable, searchable genetic information from nine other species was included for comparison; eight of these species are mainly distributed in China and one in Korea. Moreover, the cp. genomes of P. campanella and P. chinensis f. alba were analyzed for the first time. By analyzing the cp. genome structure, codon usage preference, and simple sequence repeats (SSRs), sequencing differences, nucleotide diversity (Pi), and evolutionary selection pressure were compared, and phylogenetic trees were constructed. We further aimed to confirm that P. saxatilis is a new species and explored the phylogenetic position of P. saxatilis in genus Pulsatilla. Through phylogenetic and comparative analyses, we determined the relationship among the different species of the genus Pulsatilla in China and thus provided valuable information for the evaluation and determination of the medicinal varieties of the genus. The findings of this study will serve as a reference for the protection of endangered species and the exploitation and utilization of the medicinal resources of this genus.


Basic characteristics of the cp. genome of P. saxatilis

In this study, we sequenced and reported the complete cp. genome of P. saxatilis for the first time. The entire genome was 162,659 bp in length and had a typical circular structure, with a GC content of 37.5%. Additionally, the complete cp. genome of P. saxatilis (shown in Fig. 2) consisted of two inverted repeat regions (IRA and IRB), an LSC region (82,225 bp), and an SSC region (17,848 bp). The genome contained 134 genes, including 90 known protein-coding genes (PCGs), 36 tRNA genes, and 8 rRNA genes. The total length of the coding gene was 94,918 bp, accounting for 58.35% of the total length of the genome. Genes annotated in the P. saxatilis cp. genomes are listed in Table 1. Moreover, the rps12 gene was trans-spliced.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Annotation map of the cp. genome structure of Pulsatilla saxatilis. Genes placed outside the outer circle are transcribed clockwise, whereas those placed inside the outer circle are transcribed counter-clockwise. Genes belonging to different functional groups are color-coded. The gray histogram within the inner circle depicts the GC content of the genome, and the middle gray line indicates the 50% threshold line

Table 1 Genes annotated in the cp. genomes of Pulsatilla saxatilis

Comparative analysis of the cp. genome of Pulsatilla

The complete cp. genomes of 10 Pulsatilla species ranged from 162,322 bp (P. campanella) to 163,851 bp (P. chinensis) in length, with a maximum difference of 1,529 bp and a minimum difference of 31 bp. The size of the LSC region ranged from 81,894 bp (P. dahurica) to 82,606 bp (P. tongkangensis), with a maximum difference of 712 bp and a minimum difference of 29 bp. Moreover, the size of the SSC region ranged from 17,497 bp (P. campanella) to 19,272 bp (P. chinensis), with a maximum difference of 1,775 bp and a minimum difference of 5 bp. The size of the IR region varied from 31,084 bp (P. tongkangensis) to 31,410 bp (P. cernua), with a maximum difference of 326 bp and a minimum difference of 1 bp. Furthermore, the GC content ranged from 37.1 to 37.5%. Additionally, we found that the number of genes remained consistent in all the species. A total of 134 genes were observed, including 36 tRNAs, 8 rRNAs, and 90 PCGs, wherein 14 tRNAs and 8 rRNAs were located in the IR region. On comparing the cp. gene characteristics in seven species and three subspecies units of Pulsatilla, we found that the cp. genes were highly conserved (Table 2), and the relative positions and sizes of different genes were similar in the 10 species.

Table 2 Summary of cp. genome characteristics of 10 Pulsatilla species

The overall sequence identity of the cp. genomes of the 10 Pulsatilla species was plotted using mVISTA, with the annotation of P. chinensis as a reference. The 10 species demonstrated high sequence similarity, and the IR region was more conserved than the single-copy region. Genetic variation in the intergenic spacers (IGS) was more common than in the coding regions. The coding region has three regions of high difference, namely ycf1 (refers to ycf1 located in the SSC-IRA region), ycf2, and ndhF. Moreover, significant differences were observed in the IGS, and the highly variable IGS regions included rps16_trnK-UUU, trnY-GUA_trnD-GUC, ndhC_trnV-UAC, ndhF_trnL-UAG, and ccsA_ndhD.

Fig. 3
figure 3

Visualization alignment of the cp. genome sequence of 10 Pulsatilla species, using P. chinensis as the reference sequence. The identity percentages ranging from 50–100% are shown on the y-axis, whereas the positions within the cp. genome are shown on the x-axis. Each arrow indicates the annotated genes and direction of their transcription in the reference genome. Genome regions, i.e., coding sequences, noncoding sequences, and RNA, are color-coded

To further understand the differences among the cp. genome sequences of 10 Pulsatilla species, we used the nucleotide substitution number and sequence Kimura 2-parameter (K2p) distance to indicate the degree of differences. The nucleotide substitution number of 10 species ranged from 17 to 1308, and the K2p distance ranged from 0.0001 to 0.00816 (Table 3). P. chinensis var. kissii and P. chinensis demonstrated the smallest sequence difference, with P. dahurica and P. campanella exhibiting the largest sequence difference.

Table 3 Number of nucleotide substitutions and sequence distance in 10 complete cp. genomes

Nucleotide diversity (pi)

Nucleotide and haplotype diversity and GC content of 78 genes, gene introns, and IGS regions in the cp. genome of 10 Pulsatilla species were calculated (Fig. 4, Table S1). Among the 78 genes, rpl36 demonstrated the highest Pi value of 0.01754. The genes with high Pi values were primarily distributed in the LSC region and those with moderate and low Pi values in the SSC and IRA or IRB regions, respectively, indicating that the IR region is extremely conserved and less sensitive to the evolutionary pressure of these genes. In the gene intron region, the Pi value of rps12 intron was up to 0.09763 and that of other introns was similar to that in the gene region. Moreover, we observed high nucleotide diversity in the IGS region, with ccsA_ndhD exhibiting a maximum Pi of 0.06066 and IGS regions demonstrating much higher Pi values than gene regions. The intron, IGS region, and coding region genes with high Pi values and three universal cp. DNA barcodes psbA_trnH, matK, and rbcL are listed in Table 4.

Fig. 4
figure 4

Nucleotide and haplotype diversity of cp. genomes of Pulsatilla

Table 4 Variability of seven variable markers and universal cp. DNA barcodes (rbcL, matK, and psbA_trnH) in Pulsatilla

Codon usage bias

Codon bias refers to the frequency of codon usage in protein translation, which is affected by several factors such as gene mutation and nucleotide composition. Codon usage is typically assessed using relative synonymous codon usage (RSCU), the number of codon usage, and the fraction of codon for each amino acid.

The cpDNA of P. saxatilis contains 27,709 codons, encoding a total of 20 amino acids. From codon classification analysis, we found that the most commonly encoded amino acid was leucine (Leu), with a total of 2831 codons (10.22%), including 6 synonymous codons, of which the UUA codon was the most common (Table 5, supplementary Fig. S1). It was followed by isoleucine (Ile, 8.69%), serine (Ser, 7.59%), glycine (Gly, 6.76%), arginine (Arg, 6.13%), and phenylalanine (Phe, 5.50%). Cystine (Cys, 328) was the least encoded amino acid. Of these codons, AUU (codon 1162) encoded isoleucine (Ile) and UGC (codon 95) encoded cysteine were the most and least frequently used codons (Table 5).

The codon usage in cp. genomes of the 10 species was highly similar. All identified 30 codons exhibited an RSCU value greater than 1, indicating a preference for their codon usage (Table 5). In the third position, 16 codons ended in U(T), 13 ended in A, and only one ended in G, indicating the strong A/T preference of the codons of Pulsatilla cpDNA in the third position. Additionally, the RSCU values of the start codon AUG and trp coding codon UGG were both 1, indicating no preference, whereas the RSCU value of the stop codon UAA was greater than 1, indicating a preference.

Table 5 Relative synonymous codon usage (RSCU) for protein-coding genes in Pulsatilla saxatilis

Analysis of evolutionary selection pressure

Nonsynonymous substitution rate (Ka), synonymous substitution rate (Ks) and Ka/Ks ratio are commonly used to evaluate the evolution rate between gene sequences and better elucidate whether selection pressure is associated with a particular protein-coding gene. The Ka/Ks values of 78 protein-coding genes in the cp. genome of 10 Pulsatilla genus were calculated. The results showed that Ka of most genes was less than Ks value, that is, Ka/Ks < 1, which means that most protein-coding genes have been purified in the process of evolution. Only ycf2 gene showed Ka/Ks > 1, and the gene showed positive selection effects. (Fig. 5, supplementary Table S2).

Fig. 5
figure 5

Ka, Ks values of 35 protein-coding genes

Analysis of long repeats and SSRs

Our findings showed that the most common types of long repeats were forward and palindromic repeats, followed by reverse repeats, and only a few complementary repeats were found in 10 cp. genomes. Most repeats were short, ranging from 30 to 49 bp in length. Most mononucleotide consisted of A/T, and other SSR types mainly included AT/TA, with little G/C. Each of the 10 cp. genomes consisted of 83–93 SSRs. These SSR ranged from 10 to 22 bp in length. Among the four structural regions of the cp. genome, most long repeats and SSRs were detected in the LSC region, followed by that in the SSC region, and least in IRA/ IRB regions. The above results are shown in Fig. 6.

Fig. 6
figure 6

Repeat sequence analysis of Pulsatilla. (A) Frequency of SSRs by types; (B) frequency of SSRs by base composition; (C) number of five repeat types

Phylogenetic analysis

Phylogenetic trees were constructed for 10 Pulsatilla species and 13 other Ranunculaceae species using the complete cp. genome (Fig. 7). The best amino acid substitution model was selected using GTR + F + I + G4, with Potentilla chinensis of the Rosaceae family and Panax ginseng of the Araliaceae family as outgroup clusters. The phylogenetic tree generated 22 nodes, with most of them exhibiting perfect bootstrap and Bayesian test post-probability support. The result of maximum likelihood (ML) phylogenetic tree is presented in Fig. 7. The topology of Bayesian inference (BI) tree was consistent with that of ML tree. P. saxatilis formed a sister relationship with P. campanella (red), whereas the most morphologically similar P. chinensis was resolved on a more distant phylogenetic position. Coupled with morphological characteristics, the phylogenetic results further verified that P. saxatilis is a separate, new species.

Fig. 7
figure 7

Phylogenetic tree of Pulsatilla saxatilis and 24 other species using maximum likelihood (ML) and Bayesian inference methods based on the complete cp. genome sequences. Number of the branches indicates ML bootstrap support value/Bayesian posterior probability

Ten sequences in Table 4 were extracted from cp. gene respectively, used MAFFT v7 to align and the best amino acid substitution model of ML tree were selected to build phylogenetic trees. The phylogenetic trees of rps16_trnK-UUU (A) and rbcL (B) were shown in Fig. 8, phylogenetic trees built based the other eight sequences were shown in Figure S3. At the same time, according to the analysis results of nucleotide and haplotype diversity, the following six sequences exhibited the highest Pi values: rps12-intron, ccsA_ndhD, psbL_psbF, rps16_trnK-UUU, trnE-UUC_trnY-GUA, and trnY-GUA_trnD-GUC. We used MAFFT v7 to align the six sequences separately and subsequently concatenate the sequences. Fuzzy areas were trimmed using Gblocks contrast, and the resulting sequences were used to build phylogenetic trees. The best amino acid substitution model of BI tree was GTR + F + G4. Our finding showed that the BI tree demonstrated the same topological structure as the phylogenetic tree based on the cp. genome, and all branches had high support values (Fig. 9B). The best amino acid substitution model of ML tree was F81 + F. Moreover, the ML tree differed (Fig. 9A) from the first two trees, the branch formed of P. cernua, P. tongkangensis, P. cernua f. plumbea, and P. dahurica had a different relationship, and the bootstrap support was slightly lower.

Fig. 8
figure 8

Phylogenetic trees of 10 Pulsatilla species and outgroup Anemone tomentosa using maximum likelihood (ML) based on rps16_trnK-UUU (A) and rbcL (B). Number of the branches indicates ML bootstrap support value

Fig. 9
figure 9

Phylogenetic tree of 10 Pulsatilla species and outgroup Anemone tomentosa using maximum likelihood (ML) (A) and Bayesian inference methods (B) based on the high variable region sequences. Number of the branches indicates ML bootstrap support value/Bayesian posterior probability. Red branches are for P. saxatilis and its sister taxa, and blue marks the different branches between the two trees

Time estimation

After ML phylogenetic reconstruction, a divergence time was established, with Panax ginseng (KM067390) as a root species, estimated to be 124 Mya. The monophyletic group to which the genus Pulsatilla belongs diverged at about 21.7619 Mya, Pulsatilla diverged from Anemone at about 12.128 Mya. The isolation of the clade of species within the genus Pulsatilla occurred at about 4.2922 Mya. The division between Pulsatilla saxatilis and Pulsatilla campanella occurs around 2.2963 Mya (Fig. 10).

Fig. 10
figure 10

Divergence times of 10 Pulsatilla species obtained from BEAST analysis based on the complete cp. genome sequences. Mean divergence time of the nodes were shown next to the nodes while the blue bars correspond to the 95% highest posterior density (HPD)


Comparative analysis of the cp. genome of Pulsatilla

From the visualization alignment of the cp. genome sequence of Pulsatilla (Fig. 3), it can be intuitively seen that the cp. genomes of different Pulsatilla species had similar structure and gene sequence. Moreover, the divergence level in the noncoding region was higher than that in the coding region. Additionally, the difference between the LSC and SSC regions was greater than that between the IR regions. Sequence divergence in the single copy region was higher than that in the IR region and that in the noncoding region was higher than that in the coding region. These results were similar to those previously reported in the genus Pulsatilla [14, 15].

Gene codon usage in the cp. genome of Pulsatilla

Single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) appear most frequently in CG sequences, and C to T polymorphisms are the most common transitions, because C in CG is often methylated and becomes thymine after spontaneous deamination. Generally, SNPs are single nucleotide variants with a frequency greater than 1%. According to the criteria proposed by Grant et al. (1998), the critical value of haplotype diversity was 0.5 and that of nucleotide diversity was 0.005. The higher the value of both, the higher is the degree of population diversity.

Genes in the chloroplasts are functionally important and might have been under selection during evolution. To analyze the selection pressure on the cp. genome of Pulsatilla, we calculated the non-synonymous/synonymous replacement rates (Ka/Ks) of the coding genes of 10 Pulsatilla species. Genes with Ka/Ks values higher than 1.0 should be selected positively and may be candidates for functional adaptation, while genes below 1.0 should be selected negatively [16]. Most genes had Ka/Ks values below 1.0 (Fig. 5), reflecting selective pressure to maintain gene function. According to the calculation, only ycf2 Ka/Ks > 1, and clpP, matK and ycf1 were 0.5-1. The rest are 0-0.5. It has been reported that genes involved in photosystems(psbD, psbE, psbF, psbI, psbJ, psbK, psbL, psbM, psbN, psbT, psbZ)the cytochrome b/f complex (petB, petD, petG, petL, petN), and some ATP synthases (atpB, atpE, atpF, atpH, atpI) in all species have Ka/Ks values close to 0 [17]. The genes with high ratio were unclassified genes (ycf1, ycf2), and enzyme related genes (clpP, matK). The cp. genes of Pulsatilla have high conservation.

Phylogenetic analysis of the Genus Pulsatilla

Phylogenetic trees were constructed for 10 species of genus Pulsatilla, and they were color-coded to reflect clade identity. Among them, P. chinensis and its variety P. chinensis var. kissii were first clustered into a branch, which was then clustered into a branch with its forma P. chinensis f. alba, consistent with the previous classification based on morphology. However, P. cernua f. plumbea did not cluster with P. cernua but with P. dahurica. Moreover, P. cernua was clustered with P. tongkangensis, a natural hybrid swarm population hybridized with P. cernua based on random amplified polymorphic DNA (RAPD) and SNPs of cpDNA [18], consistent with the results of K2p distance method. The attribution of P. cernua f. plumbea and its relationship with P. cernua and P. dahurica remain to be further confirmed and studied. Clades with the blue branch indicate four Chinese distributed species (P. chinensis, P. cernua, P. dahurica, and P. turczaninovii), the roots of which are recorded in the provincial and higher standards of herbal medicine as a source of “Bai tou weng.” In the future, phylogenetic relationship analysis of genus Pulsatilla, combined with the results of chemical composition analysis, will provide important reference information for the evaluation of the medicinal resources of “Bai tou weng” in China.

The new species P. saxatilis clustered with P. campanella into a branch but was phylogenetically distant from the most morphologically similar species, P. chinensis. Considering the gross morphology, P. saxatlis was closely similar to P. chinensis in having 3-foliolate leaves and solitary, erect flowers but differed in having light blue, whitish-blue, or white (vs. violet) sepals and persistent 2–2.5 cm (vs. 3.5–6.5 cm) long styles. Moreover, the phylogenetically closest species P. campanella has 3-foliolate leaves, but lower leaflets have essentially the same shape as lateral segments of central leaflet, appearing as a pinnate; flower nodding before and at anthesis; and sepals blue-violet to lilac in color. The morphological differences of the genus Pulsatilla are primarily reflected in flower morphology and leaf characteristics. Species with nodding flowers and pinnately divided leaves are phylogenetically derived from those with erect flowers and palmately divided leaves [19].

P. campanella is distributed in western Xinjiang, P. saxatlis is now found in Liaoning Province, and P. chinensis is widely distributed in northeast China (including Liaoning), North China, Sichuan, etc. Four types of germination pores occur in pollen grains of the genus Pulsatilla, namely, tricolpate, pantocolpate, pantoporate, and ditype pollen (with tricolpate and dicolpate) [20]. Among them, P. chinensis is tricolpate and P. campanella and P. saxatlis are pantoporate. Moreover, the evolution trend of each type is as follows: tricolpate → pantocolpate → pantoporate. Therefore, to explore the relative species of P. saxatlis, further data support and analyses are required.

Both traditional morphological classification and DNA barcoding are designed to solve the problem of species classification and identification, so as to protect and sustainably utilize biodiversity resources more effectively. In this study, 10 high-variable region sequences were screened for the construction of phylogenetic trees, and none were completely consistent with the cp. gene phylogenetic tree. This is mainly reflected in the difference of phylogenetic relationship between P. campanella and P. saxatilis. The tree with higher consistency with cp. gene tree structure is based on ccsA_ndhD (Fig. S2-A), rps16_trnK-UUU (Fig. 8-A), and ccsA (Fig. S2-C). However, trnY-GUA_trnD-GUC with the same high Pi value has different branch structure. A common problem is that the outgroup (Anemone tomentosa) of these trees is not well distinguished, but does not have a significant impact on intra-genus identification. Of the 10 selected sequences, only rbcL effectively identified outgroups. The remaining selected sequences also have a certain discrimination rate. Generally speaking, the higher Pi value, usually the higher consistency with cp. gene tree and higher bootstrap value. However, rps12-intron (Fig. S2-F), the sequence with the highest Pi, failed to build phylogenetic tree because most branches had zero bootstrap. Through sequence alignment, it was found that the sequences were highly consistent, and only P. dahurica sequence was significantly different from other sequences. Therefore, rps12-intron is not suitable as a bar code for the identification of Pulsatilla genus, but it can be considered for the exclusive identification of P. dahurica.

When a single sequence is used for species identification, it may not be able to solve all the problems at the same time, such as inter-genus and intra-genus differences, so it is still necessary to conduct multi-sequence combination and experimental verification. At present, plant DNA barcoding is developing from a single or a few DNA fragments to a combination of multiple DNA fragments, cp. genome data, etc., and has been widely used in many studies [21]. In particular, the great improvement of genome sequencing technology makes it possible for researchers to explore “genome super DNA barcoding”. For closely related species, complete cp. gene can provide more comprehensive gene difference information for effective identification. In this study, cp. genes of Pulsatilla were analyzed and the effective DNA sequences were selected. It is of great significance for the species classification and identification of Pulsatilla.


We reported the cpDNA characteristics of a newly discovered endangered species, P. saxatilis, and compared the cpDNA of 10 reported plants in the same genus. The cpDNA of the Pulsatilla exhibit highly similar size, GC content, gene sequence, and function. Through a series of comparisons, it was determined that the closest species to P. saxatilis is P. campanella, which is the same as the conclusion based on pollen grain characteristics, but different from the P. chinensis determined based on morphological characteristics. The above results are of great significance for the identification and taxonomy research of Pulsatilla.


Plant material and DNA extraction

Fresh young leaves of P. saxatilis were collected from Baiyun Mountain in Fengcheng, Liaoning, China (E 81°89′30″, N 43°26′98″) and subsequently dried using silica gel. The voucher specimens were identified by professor Tingguo Kang (Liaoning University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Dalian, China) and deposited at the herbarium of Liaoning University of Traditional Chinese Medicine (Reference number: 10,162,210,527,011). Total genomic DNA was extracted using a Plant Tissue Chloroplast DNA Extraction Kit (Genmed Scientific Inc., Arlington, MA).

Sequencing, assembly, and gene annotation of cpDNA

The total genomic DNA was constructed in a sequencing library with a 350-bp insert using the NexteraXT DNA library preparation kit (Illumina, San Diego, CA). Further, double-terminal sequencing was performed on the library using the Illumina Novaseq 6000 sequencing platform. The raw data were edited using NGS QC Tool Kit v2.3.3 [22]. Furthermore, high-quality reads were assembled into cp. genome using a de novo assembler SPAdes v3.11.0 [23]. Subsequently, the genome was annotated using the PGA program [24], with Pulsatilla dahurica (NCBI accession number: MK860685.1) cp. genome as the reference. Finally, the edited GenBank annotation file was submitted to OGDRAW to draw an annotation map [25].

Comparative genomic analysis of the cp. Genome

In order to investigate the sequence divergence of the cp. genome of Pulsatilla, the cp. genome sequences of the 10 Pulsatilla species were visualized using mVISTA (, with P. chinensis as the reference; moreover, the cp. genome was compared using default parameters in Shufe-LAGAN mode. Furthermore, to clarify the level of sequence variation, MEGA 6.0 software [26] was used to calculate SNP variation and K2p distance in Pulsatilla cp. genome.

To explore the diverging hotspot regions in Pulsatilla species and facilitate their utilization in identification, coding sequences (CDS), introns, and IGS of the cp. genome were extracted, and the sequences were compared using MAFFT v7; furthermore, the nucleotide and haplotype diversity were analyzed using DNAsp v6 software [27]. Phylogenetic trees were constructed for several sequences with higher Pi values. MAFFT v7 was used for cp. genome comparison, and IQ-TREE (v1.6.12) was used for optimal nucleotide model screening and ML tree analysis.

Analyses of codon preferences

Codon usage bias analysis and calculation of the RSCU values were performed in the program CodonW v1.3. An RSCU value > 1 indicates frequent codon bias usage and a preferred codon, an RSCU value < 1 indicates less codon bias usage, and an RSCU value of 1 indicates no codon usage preference.

Analysis of evolutionary selection pressure

Firstly, the homologous gene sequences of 10 Pulsatilla species were compared with MAFFT v7.429 (the default parameter was selected). And a well-aligned fasta format sequence file was obtained. Then use the software IQTREE 1.6.12 to generate the tree file. Finally, the codeml program of PAML V4.9 was used to calculate the Ka, Ks, and Ka/Ks values, and the results were sorted out and visualized.

Repeat sequence and SSR analysis

SSRs were identified using MISA software (, and the minimum repeats of single nucleotide, dinucleotide, trinucleotide, tetranucleotide, pentanucleotide, and hexanucleotide sequences were set to 10, 5, 4, 3, 3, and 3, respectively [28].

Dispersed repeats (forward, reverse, palindrome, and complementary) were identified using the online software REPuter (, and the minimum repeat size was set to 30 bp and hamming distance to 3 [29].

Tandem repeats were identified by running a web-based tandem repeat finder (, in which the similarity percentage of two repeat copies was at least 90% and the minimal repeat size was 10 bp. The alignment parameters were set to 2, 7, and 7 for matches, mismatches, and indels, respectively.

Phylogenetic analysis

cp. genome alignment was performed using MAFFT v7 [30], and the alignment gaps were stripped using Gblocks contrast. A total of 25 cp. genomes were aligned. Phylogenetic trees were inferred using ML and Bayesian inference (BI) methods. IQ-TREE (v1.6.12) was used for ML tree analyses. The phylogenetic analyses used the best-fitting models of nucleotide substitution selected in ModelFinder [31] under the Bayesian information criterion (BIC), and the optimal nucleic acid replacement model used was TVM + F + R2. Furthermore, BI was performed using MrBayes v3.2.6 [32]. The Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) analysis was run twice for 5,000,000 generations. Every 1,000 generations were counted. The first 25% of the trees corresponding to the “burn-in” period were discarded, and the remaining three parts were used to construct the majority-rule consensus tree. According to BIC, the optimal nucleic acid replacement model used was GTR + F + I + G4.

Divergence time analysis

cp. genome alignment was performed using MAFFT v7, and then blurred areas are modified using Gblocks contrast (removing locations containing comparison gaps). The modified sequences are used to construct phylogenetic trees. We selected four nodes to determine the divergence time: (1) Panax ginseng and Potentilla chinensis diverged 118 Mya (range, 111.4–123.9 Mya); (2) Panax ginseng and Pulsatilla campanella diverged 129 Mya (range, 126.0–132.4 Mya); (3) Pulsatilla campanella and Anemoclema glaucifolium diverged 26.0 Mya (range, 9.4–40.8 Mya) ; (4) Pulsatilla campanella and Hepatica falconeri diverged 28.2 Mya (range, 9.7–34.4 Mya) [33].

With reference to the above nodes, we used BEAST v2.6.2 to make divergence time inferences for cp. genome sequences of 25 species. Use Strict Clock as the inference method; In the MCMC operation, 10,000,000 generation tests are performed. In the process of merging tree, statistics are made every 1000 generations. At last, the first 25% trees are discarded as aging trees; The rest of the trees are merged to infer the divergent times represented by the tree structure and nodes. Use Tracer 1.7.1 to view the tree file with the ESS parameter > 200. Finally, use FigTree v1.4.4 to view the tree results and beautify them [34].

Data availability

The datasets generated and/or analyzed during the current study are available in the NCBI repository, Accession numbers: OP729488.



Bayesian inference


Bayesian information criterion


Coding sequences


chloroplast DNA


Intergenic spacers


Inverted repeats


Nonsynonymous substitution rate


Synonymous substitution rate


Large single-copy


Maximum likelihood


mitochondrial DNA


Protein-coding genes


Relative synonymous codon usage


Small single-copy


Simple sequence repeats


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This work was supported by National Natural Science Foundation of China [82373999]; Liaoning Provincial Department of Education Project [JYTMS20231834]; Liaoning BaiQianWan Talents Program [No.2021A039]; Key project at central government level: The ability establishment of sustainable use for valuable Chinese medicine resources [2060302]; Major Special Fund for Science and Technology of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region [No. 2019ZD004].

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All authors contributed to the study conception and design. Conceptualization, data curation, methodology, software and writing — original draft preparation, HFX; validation, WJH; formal analysis, XXY.; investigation, CB; resources, HZ; writing—review and editing, YPX; visualization, WXM; supervision, YYY; project administration, TGK; funding acquisition, LX. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Yanyun Yang or Liang Xu.

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Xue, H., Xing, Y., Bian, C. et al. Comparative analysis of chloroplast genomes of Pulsatilla species reveals evolutionary and taxonomic status of newly discovered endangered species Pulsatilla saxatilis. BMC Plant Biol 24, 293 (2024).

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