The parasitic Platyhelminthes (Neodermata) contains three parasitic groups of flatworms, each having a unique morphology, and life style: Monogenea (primarily ectoparasitic), Trematoda (endoparasitic flukes), and Cestoda (endoparasitic tapeworms). The evolutionary origin of complex life cyles (multiple obligate hosts, as found in Trematoda and Cestoda) and of endo-/ecto-parasitism in these groups is still under debate and these questions can be resolved, only if the phylogenetic position of the Monogenea within the Neodermata clade is correctly estimated.
To test the interrelationships of the major parasitic flatworm groups, we estimated the phylogeny of the Neodermata using complete available mitochondrial genome sequences and a newly characterized sequence of a polyopisthocotylean monogenean Microcotyle sebastis. Comparisons of inferred amino acid sequences and gene arrangement patterns with other published flatworm mtDNAs indicate Monogenea are sister group to a clade of Trematoda+Cestoda.
Results confirm that vertebrates were the first host for stem group neodermatans and that the addition of a second, invertebrate, host was a single event occurring in the Trematoda+Cestoda lineage. In other words, the move from direct life cycles with one host to complex life cycles with multiple hosts was a single evolutionary event. In association with the evolution of life cycle patterns, our result supports the hypothesis that the most recent common ancestor of the Neodermata giving rise to the Monogenea adopted vertebrate ectoparasitism as its initial life cycle pattern and that the intermediate hosts of the Trematoda (molluscs) and Cestoda (crustaceans) were subsequently added into the endoparasitic life cycles of the Trematoda+Cestoda clade after the common ancestor of these branched off from the monogenean lineage. Complex life cycles, involving one or more intermediate hosts, arose through the addition of intermediate hosts and not the addition of a vertebrate definitive host. Additional evidence is required from monopisthocotylean monogeneans in order to confirm the monophyly of the group.