The Cocoseae is one of 13 tribes of Arecaceae subfam. Arecoideae, and contains a number of palms with significant economic importance, including the monotypic and pantropical Cocos nucifera L., the coconut, the origins of which have been one of the “abominable mysteries” of palm systematics for decades. Previous studies with predominantly plastid genes weakly supported American ancestry for the coconut but ambiguous sister relationships. In this paper, we use multiple single copy nuclear loci to address the phylogeny of the Cocoseae subtribe Attaleinae, and resolve the closest extant relative of the coconut.

Methodology/Principal Findings

We present the results of combined analysis of DNA sequences of seven WRKY transcription factor loci across 72 samples of Arecaceae tribe Cocoseae subtribe Attaleinae, representing all genera classified within the subtribe, and three outgroup taxa with maximum parsimony, maximum likelihood, and Bayesian approaches, producing highly congruent and well-resolved trees that robustly identify the genus Syagrus as sister to Cocos and resolve novel and well-supported relationships among the other genera of the Attaleinae. We also address incongruence among the gene trees with gene tree reconciliation analysis, and assign estimated ages to the nodes of our tree.


This study represents the as yet most extensive phylogenetic analyses of Cocoseae subtribe Attaleinae. We present a well-resolved and supported phylogeny of the subtribe that robustly indicates a sister relationship between Cocos and Syagrus. This is not only of biogeographic interest, but will also open fruitful avenues of inquiry regarding evolution of functional genes useful for crop improvement. Establishment of two major clades of American Attaleinae occurred in the Oligocene (ca. 37 MYBP) in Eastern Brazil. The divergence of Cocos from Syagrus is estimated at 35 MYBP. The biogeographic and morphological congruence that we see for clades resolved in the Attaleinae suggests that WRKY loci are informative markers for investigating the phylogenetic relationships of the palm family.