Nitrogen is fundamental to all life forms and is also one of the most limiting of nutrients for plant growth. Several clades of angiosperms have developed symbiotic relationships with actinorhizal bacteria that fix atmospheric nitrogen and increase access to this nutrient. However, the evolutionary patterns of actinorhizal nitrogen-fixing symbioses remain unclear to date. Furthermore the underlying environmental pressures that led to the gain of symbiotic actinorhizal nitrogen fixation have never been investigated. Here, we present the most comprehensive genus-level phylogenetic analysis of the nitrogen-fixing angiosperms based on three plastid loci. We found that actinorhizal nitrogen-fixing species are distributed in nine distinct lineages. By dating the branching events, we determined that seven actinorhizal nitrogen-fixing lineages originated during the Late Cretaceous, and two more emerged during the Eocene. We put forward a hypothesis that multiple gains of actinorhizal nitrogen-fixing symbioses in angiosperms may have been associated with increased global temperatures and high levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide during these two time periods, as well as the availability of open habitats with high light conditions. Our nearly complete genus-level time-tree for the nitrogen-fixing clade is a significant advance in understanding the evolutionary and ecological background of this important symbiosis between plants and bacteria.
Via Pierre-Marc Delaux