Ancient recruitment by chromists of green algal genes encoding enzymes for carotenoid biosynthesis

Ruth Frommolt, Sonja Werner, Harald Paulsen, Reimund Goss, Christian Wilhelm, Stefan Zauner, Uwe G. Maier, Arthur R. Grossman, Debashish Bhattacharya, Martin Lohr

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Chromist algae (stramenopiles, cryptophytes, and haptophytes) are major contributors to marine primary productivity. These eukaryotes acquired their plastid via secondary endosymbiosis, whereby an early-diverging red alga was engulfed by a protist and the plastid was retained and its associated nuclear-encoded genes were transferred to the host genome. Current data suggest, however, that chromists are paraphyletic; therefore, it remains unclear whether their plastids trace back to a single secondary endosymbiosis or, alternatively, this organelle has resulted from multiple independent events in the different chromist lineages. Both scenarios, however, predict that plastid-targeted, nucleus-encoded chromist proteins should be most closely related to their red algal homologs. Here we analyzed the biosynthetic pathway of carotenoids that are essential components of all photosynthetic eukaryotes and find a mosaic evolutionary origin of these enzymes in chromists. Surprisingly, about one-third (5/16) of the proteins are most closely related to green algal homologs with three branching within or sister to the early-diverging Prasinophyceae. This phylogenetic association is corroborated by shared diagnostic indels and the syntenic arrangement of a specific gene pair involved in the photoprotective xanthophyll cycle. The combined data suggest that the prasinophyte genes may have been acquired before the ancient split of stramenopiles, haptophytes, cryptophytes, and putatively also dinoflagellates. The latter point is supported by the observed monophyly of alveolates and stramenopiles in most molecular trees. One possible explanation for our results is that the green genes are remnants of a cryptic endosymbiosis that occurred early in chromalveolate evolution; that is, prior to the postulated split of stramenopiles, alveolates, haptophytes, and cryptophytes. The subsequent red algal capture would have led to the loss or replacement of most green genes via intracellular gene transfer from the new endosymbiont. We argue that the prasinophyte genes were retained because they enhance photosynthetic performance in chromalveolates, thus extending the niches available to these organisms. The alternate explanation of green gene origin via serial endosymbiotic or horizontal gene transfers is also plausible, but the latter would require the independent origins of the same five genes in some or all the different chromalveolate lineages.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2653-2667
Number of pages15
JournalMolecular biology and evolution
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2008
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics


  • Carotenoid biosynthesis
  • Chromalveolates
  • Gene transfer
  • Plastid
  • Secondary endosymbiosis
  • Xanthophyll cycle


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