When Less is More: Red Algae as Models for Studying Gene Loss and Genome Evolution in Eukaryotes

Debashish Bhattacharya, Huan Qiu, Jun Mo Lee, Hwan Su Yoon, Andreas P.M. Weber, Dana C. Price

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Genome evolution is usually viewed through the lens of growth in size and complexity over time, exemplified by plants and animals. In contrast, genome reduction is associated with a narrowing of ecological potential, such as in parasites and endosymbionts. But, can nuclear genome reduction also occur in, and potentially underpin a major radiation of free-living eukaryotes? An intriguing example of this phenomenon is provided by the red algae (Rhodophyta) that have lost many conserved pathways such as for flagellar motility, macroautophagy regulation, and phytochrome based light sensing. This anciently diverged, species-rich, and ecologically important algal lineage has undergone at least two rounds of large-scale genome reduction during its >1 billion-year evolutionary history. Here, using recent analyses of genome data, we review knowledge about the evolutionary trajectory of red algal nuclear and organelle gene inventories and plastid encoded autocatalytic introns. We compare and contrast Rhodophyta genome evolution to Viridiplantae (green algae and plants), both of which are members of the Archaeplastida, and highlight their divergent paths. We also discuss evidence for the speculative hypothesis that reduction in red algal plastid genome size through endosymbiotic gene transfer is counteracted by ongoing selection for compact nuclear genomes in red algae. Finally, we describe how the spliceosomal intron splicing apparatus provides an example of “evolution in action” in Rhodophyta and how the overall constraints on genome size in this lineage has left significant imprints on this key step in RNA maturation. Our review reveals the red algae to be an exciting, yet under-studied model that offers numerous novel insights as well as many unanswered questions that remain to be explored using modern genomic, genetic, and biochemical methods. The fact that a speciose lineage of free-living eukaryotes has spread throughout many aquatic habitats after having lost about 25% of its primordial gene inventory challenges us to elucidate the mechanisms underlying this remarkable feat.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)81-99
Number of pages19
JournalCritical Reviews in Plant Sciences
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Plant Science


  • Gene loss
  • RNA splicing
  • Rhodophyta
  • genome size
  • group II intron
  • spliceosomal intron


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