Galton Laboratory, Department of Biology, University College London, London WC1E 6BT, England, United Kingdom.
Accurate and precise estimation of divergence times during the Neo-Proterozoic is necessary to understand the speciation dynamic of early Eukaryotes. However such deep divergences are difficult to date, as the molecular clock is seriously violated. Recent improvements in Bayesian molecular dating techniques allow the relaxation of the molecular clock hypothesis as well as incorporation of multiple and flexible fossil calibrations. Divergence times can then be estimated even when the evolutionary rate varies among lineages and even when the fossil calibrations involve substantial uncertainties. In this paper, we used a Bayesian method to estimate divergence times in Foraminifera, a group of unicellular eukaryotes, known for their excellent fossil record but also for the high evolutionary rates of their genomes. Based on multigene data we reconstructed the phylogeny of Foraminifera and dated their origin and the major radiation events. Our estimates suggest that Foraminifera emerged during the Cryogenian (650-920Ma, Neo-Proterozoic), with a mean time around 770Ma, about 220Myr before the first appearance of reliable foraminiferal fossils in sediments (545Ma). Most dates are in agreement with the fossil record, but in general our results suggest earlier origins of foraminiferal orders. We found that the posterior time estimates were robust to specifications of the prior. Our results highlight inter-species variations of evolutionary rates in Foraminifera. Their effect was partially overcome by using the partitioned Bayesian analysis to accommodate rate heterogeneity among data partitions and using the relaxed molecular clock to account for changing evolutionary rates. However, more coding genes appear necessary to obtain more precise estimates of divergence times and to resolve the conflicts between fossil and molecular date estimates.