The genetic structure of the exotic ascidian Styela plicata (Tunicata) from Italian ports, with a re-appraisal of its worldwide genetic pattern.
The pleated ascidian Styela plicata (Lesueur, 1823) is a solitary species commonly found in ports and marinas around the world. It has been recorded in the Mediterranean region since the mid-19th century. In the present work, the species' genetic diversity was analysed, employing a 613-bp portion of the mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase subunit I (COI) gene from 149 individuals collected in 14 ports along Italian coasts at spatial scales ranging from 1 to approximately 2200 km. Haplotype and nucleotide diversity values were h=0-0.933 (total h=0.789) and π=0-0.145 (total π=0.0094), respectively. A general southward trend of increasing within-population genetic diversity was observed. Analysis of molecular variance revealed significant genetic structuring but no significant differences were detected among basins, and no isolation by distance was found. Our data were integrated with the COI sequences available from previous studies and re-analysed in order to investigate the possible routes of introduction of this ascidian into the Mediterranean Sea. The presence of the two COI haplogroups detected in previous molecular investigations on S. plicata at intercontinental spatial scale was confirmed in the Mediterranean Sea. The results revealed multiple introductions of S. plicata, although some locations appear to have experienced rapid expansion from few founding individuals with reduced genetic diversity. However, continuous introductions would confound the pattern deriving from single founder events and make it difficult to estimate the time needed for gene diffusion into established populations. This mixing of effects creates difficulties in understanding the past and current dynamics of this introduction, and managing this alien invasive ascidian whose genetic structure is continuously shuffled by vessel-mediated transport.