Background To date, mitochondrial genomes of more than one hundred flatworms (Platyhelminthes) have been sequenced. They show a high degree of similarity and a strong taxonomic bias towards parasitic lineages. The mitochondrial gene atp8 has not been confidently annotated in any flatworm sequenced to date. However, sampling of free-living flatworm lineages is incomplete. We addressed this by sequencing the mitochondrial genomes of the two small-bodied (about 1 mm in length) free-living flatworms Stenostomum sthenum and Macrostomum lignano as the first representatives of the earliest branching flatworm taxa Catenulida and Macrostomorpha respectively. Results We have used high-throughput DNA and RNA sequence data and PCR to establish the mitochondrial genome sequences and gene orders of S. sthenum and M. lignano. The mitochondrial genome of S. sthenum is 16,944 bp long and includes a 1,884 bp long inverted repeat region containing the complete sequences of nad3, rrnS, and nine tRNA genes. The model flatworm M. lignano has the smallest known mitochondrial genome among free-living flatworms, with a length of 14,193 bp. The mitochondrial genome of M. lignano lacks duplicated genes, however, tandem repeats were detected in a non-coding region. Mitochondrial gene order is poorly conserved in flatworms, only a single pair of adjacent ribosomal or protein-coding genes – nad4l-nad4 – was found in S. sthenum and M. lignano that also occurs in other published flatworm mitochondrial genomes. Unexpectedly, we unambiguously identified the full metazoan mitochondrial protein-coding gene complement including atp8 in S. sthenum and M. lignano. A subsequent search detected atp8 in all mitochondrial genomes of polyclad flatworms published to date, although the gene wasn’t previously annotated in these species. Conclusions Manual, but not automated genome annotation revealed the presence of atp8 in basally branching free-living flatworms, signifying both the importance of manual data curation and of diverse taxon sampling. We conclude that the loss of atp8 within flatworms is restricted to the parasitic taxon Neodermata.
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