Producing a robust phylogenetic reconstruction for Polychaeta using either morphological or molecular data sets has proven very difficult. There remain many conflicts between morphological analyses and hypotheses based on DNA data, the latter principally derived from 18S rRNA sequences. For the present study a data set covering a broad range of polychaete diversity was assembled, including 38 new sequences from 21 species. Besides available 18S rRNA data, five additional gene segments were examined: the D1 and D9-10 expansion regions of 28S rRNA, histone H3, snU2 RNA and cytochrome c oxidase subunit I. Maximum parsimony, maximum likelihood and Bayesian analyses were conducted.
Annelida and Mollusca were reciprocally monophyletic in maximum likelihood analyses, but Polychaeta included a cephalopod in maximum parsimony analyses, and a patellogastropod in Bayesian analyses. When rooted on the Mollusca, optimal topologies from maximum likelihood analyses showed a recognisable basal group of taxa, including Oweniidae, Chaetopteridae and Amphinomidae. The six studied phyllodocidan families plus Orbiniidae (as the sister group of the scale-worms) formed the next most basal group. All analyses support the inclusion of Echiura, Clitellata and Siboglinidae within polychaetes. Bayesian analyses show Echiura as the sister group of Capitellidae, in agreement with previous 18S rRNA results, In contrast, Echiura formed the sister group to Trichobranchidae in maximum likelihood and maximum parsimony analyses.
Supra-familial groupings consistently recovered within Polychaeta in the analyses are: (i) Terebellida without Ampharetidae; (ii) Scolecida (excepting Orbiniidae); (iii) Eunicidae, Lumbrineridae and Clitellata; and (iv) “Cirratuliformia” (including Sternaspidae) plus Sabellidae, Serpulidae and Spionidae.