Field of Science

Endosymbiosis - a big tangled mess of algae

ResearchBlogging.orgNext term I'm taking a short course on plastid evolution (e.g chloroplasts), as it was the choice that came closest to my beloved bacteria. While I hold no great love for the inner workings of multicellular creatures, I'm forced to admit that there is something quite special about eukaryotic cells. They're full of little compartments, closed off organelles and selfishly horded genomes, including bacterial genomes within their mitochondria and chloroplasts. Also Psi Wavefunction writes about plastid-containing things a lot, and has convinced me that while they'll never be bacteria, they are pretty amazing in their own right.

The theory of endosymbiosis is that mitochondria and plastids (pigmented organelles such as chloroplasts) were once free-living bacteria-type organisms, which were engulfed by larger cells. Rather than being subsequently digested, these organisms managed to survive inside the larger cells, providing energy for them in return for a safe place to stay:
Diagram 'borrowed' from last years lecture notes

However this state of affairs immediately creates a problem. Not one of space, or resources, but of nuclei. Two nuclei are now present in the same organism, creating problems of control. The plastid cannot simply divide, replicate and produce energy whenever it wants, and the same is true of the surrounding cell, the two must work together, which means putting at least some of their genes under the same system of central control.

What usually happens is that over time the internal plasid's genes migrate to the nucleus of the surrounding organism (although apparently some protists will hold fairly epic genomic battles about who ends up with the majority of the genome). Genomic analysis shows the plastid or mitochondrian genes sitting happily in the nucleus, although the organelle will retain some of its genes in it's own little chromosome, probably for the same reason that the USA remains a federal government.

Doing further genetic analysis however, particularly on the chromalveolates (a large group of protists which include, among others, the red-tide producing dinoflagellates and the photosynthesising marine diatoms) shows that the story is not quite so clear cut. The chromalveolates are believed to all originate from an ancestor containing an engulfed red-algae plastid for photosynthesis. Analysis of the genome of the diatome P. tricornutums does indeed show red algal genes, however it also shows genes from green algae. In fact, large-scale phylogenetic analysis of algae and diatoms revealed over 1700 green algae genes in the P. tricornutums nucleus, outnumbering the red algae genes.

How did they get there?

One theory presented is that this diatom has in fact had two endosymbiotic events in its past; a green algae that later somehow disappeared or was lost, and then the red algae. However as there are many different branches of the chromoveolates containing varying amounts of red/green algae material this seems to make a rather large assumption about the ease of sounds like algae are being absorbed and lost surprisingly easily, and quickly. The discovery that some chromoveolates without any plastids also have plastid genes in their nucleus doesn't help matters. How are the genes getting in, and is multiple rounds of endosymbiosis, followed by subsequent plastid loss really a realistic answer?

There are other explanations, although as yet no real answers. Green algae are not the most well-sampled of organisms, and the genomic record is distinctly patchy. This makes it a lot harder to determine where genes truly come from. Also there is the matter of horizontal gene transfer. Before being engulfed by the chromalveolates, the algae would have been able to share genes in much the same way bacteria do. The green algae genes might have got into the red algae before they were engulfed.

Horizontal gene transfer can also occur in some ciliates, which may explain the presence of plastid genes in their nucleus, despite the fact that they don't have any plastids. Ciliates often form symbiotic relationships with algae. This means that they will often come into contact with lysed algae, and may have been able to pick up genetic material from them. There also may be a certain 'background' of algae-like genes which in reality have nothing to do with algae. Some plastid-like genes have been found in amoeba, which really don't have any reason to have them, so it might just be an artifact.

Even so, the evolution and origin of plastids is clearly a wonderfully convoluted and undetermined area. Away from the weirdness of algae-containing protists there are still many questions to be answered. In the plant model-organism arabidopsis there is still a fascinating interplay between the genomes of the chloroplast and the nucleus. The chloroplast uses several nuclear genes that it never even supplied in the first place, it seems to have hijacked some of the nuclear genes for it's own purposes. The arabidopsis nucleus has returned the favour, with less than half of the genes supplied by the chloroplast being used for chloroplast-related purposes.

I can't wait to start studying it. (Especially because it means the endlessly boring set of 'techniques' lectures will finally be over.)


Elias M, & Archibald JM (2009). Sizing up the genomic footprint of endosymbiosis. BioEssays : news and reviews in molecular, cellular and developmental biology, 31 (12), 1273-1279 PMID: 19921698


Psi Wavefunction said...

I think you just hybridised me with Scicurious... ^_~ although we do sound the same! There's also The Curious Wavefunction...

I swear I came with my handle independently - was before I even knew about science blogging, in fact!

In Arabidopsis, the interaction between the nucleus and plastid is VERY poorly understood. In fact, I've chanced upon having to read up on plastid cell cycle regulation, and hit a brick wall. There's a nuclear DNA replication gene, Cdt1a, which has a plastid targetting sequence, and seems to localise to the plastid and may interact with the Z-ring, regulating division. The plastids looked noticeably weird in some of the mutants, but we don't work on them so that kind of stalled. But it's a fascinating topic, in need of some investigation.

Coincidentally, just heard a talk today by one of the endosymbiosis gods. Speaking of which, here's the perfect diagram for illustrating the 'big tangled mess of algae': one of my favourite diagrams ever

Also, have you heard of nucleomorphs?

Email me if you'd like more links/info, again, I don't wanna spam your blog...

And if you're confused by the green algal genes in diatoms, so is everyone else, so don't worry. Apparently, there may be genome duplications involved as well...!

Lab Rat said...

GAH I FAIL AT NAMES. So sorry...I knew you were Psi something, and then because your blog was called Sceptic *Wonder* I had a brief attack of thought-crazy and decided it must be Psi Curious...because that sounded familier (because of Sci, obviously)

Meh, I have the worlds most unimaginative blog name ever...I love yours, and the little icon that goes with it.

Yes I do know about nucleomorphs...I was dithering about whether to mention them in this post, but decided the issue was complicated enough without introducing secondary endosymbiosis.

Thanks for the links and the info :) If you have any links to Cavalier-Smith papers about bacteria that would be awesome. At the moment I'm a bit busy trying to get results (presentation coming up...) to dig around for it.

Psi Wavefunction said...

Well, if you're busy with a presentation, perhaps fighting with TC-S writing may not be the best of things at the moment? ^_~ I'd know, I've read TC-S during finals before. Quite relaxing, actually. And really bad for your grades...

Ok, let's start with this one:
TC-S 2006 Cell evolution and Earth history: stasis and revolution

Plenty of bacteria in there. I get kind of lost sometimes...

Oh, and fyi, I'm covering neomura and eukaryogenesis. Called it. =P

takluyver said...

I too was just about to turn up and mention secondary endosymbiosis, so well done on that front. I seem to remember hearing that it goes as far as tertiary in something, but I could be making that up.

Also, to be rather hair-splitty: aren't nuclei a eukaryote thing? There's still two genomes involved, but technically just one nucleus, I think?

Psi Wavefunction said...

If you're into tertiary symbiosis, may I recommend looking at Kryptoperidinium? That thing is seriously weird! (a dinoflagellate with a valve-less diatom inside, basically... with a still-massive nucleus)

And the two nuclei thing confused me too a bit, thought maybe we were talking about secondary/tertiary endosymb. I guess nucleus and nucleoid would work better?

Lab Rat said...

The 'Two nuclei' is a stylistic error. I was trying to find a way to imply there were two indepently working genomes in one organism without too many repetitions of the word 'genome'

It would, of course, be one nucleus and one bacterial-chromosome.

Thanks for all the feedback!

Captain Skellett said...

I was told, with mitochondria, when a cell splits, you end up with a few mitochondria in each daughter cell, which then multiply.

Looking at this post and the comments I'm thinking this was a pretty simplified explanation on things. What stops the mitochondria replicating until there's no cell left? Does the mitochondria contain enough genes to replicate by itself, or does it need materials coded by the cell DNA to get going? So many QUESTIONS! Sounds like a good course to be doing.