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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Morphostasis in a novel eukaryote illuminates the evolutionary transition from phagotrophy to phototrophy: description of Rapaza viridis n. gen. et sp. (Euglenozoa, Euglenida)

Aika Yamaguchi, Naoji Yubuki and Brian S Leander*

Author affiliations

The Department of Botany and Zoology, Beaty Biodiversity Research Center and Museum, University of British Columbia, 6270 University Blvd., Vancouver, British ColumbiaV6T 1Z4, Canada

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012, 12:29  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-29

Published: 8 March 2012

Abstract

Background

Morphostasis of traits in different species is necessary for reconstructing the evolutionary history of complex characters. Studies that place these species into a molecular phylogenetic context test hypotheses about the transitional stages that link divergent character states. For instance, the transition from a phagotrophic mode of nutrition to a phototrophic lifestyle has occurred several times independently across the tree of eukaryotes; one of these events took place within the Euglenida, a large group of flagellates with diverse modes of nutrition. Phototrophic euglenids form a clade that is nested within lineages of phagotrophic euglenids and that originated through a secondary endosymbiosis with green algae. Although it is clear that phototrophic euglenids evolved from phagotrophic ancestors, the morphological disparity between species representing these different nutritional modes remains substantial.

Results

We cultivated a novel marine euglenid, Rapaza viridis n. gen. et sp. ("green grasper"), and a green alga, Tetraselmis sp., from the same environment. Cells of R. viridis were comprehensively characterized with light microscopy, SEM, TEM, and molecular phylogenetic analysis of small subunit rDNA sequences. Ultrastructural and behavioral observations demonstrated that this isolate habitually consumes a specific strain of Tetraselmis prey cells and possesses a functional chloroplast that is homologous with other phototrophic euglenids. A novel feeding apparatus consisting of a reduced rod of microtubules facilitated this first and only example of mixotrophy among euglenids. R. viridis also possessed a robust photoreception apparatus, two flagella of unequal length, euglenoid movement, and a pellicle consisting of 16 strips and one (square-shaped) whorl of posterior strip reduction. The molecular phylogenetic data demonstrated that R. viridis branches as the nearest sister lineage to phototrophic euglenids.

Conclusions

The unusual combination of features in R. viridis combined with its molecular phylogenetic position completely conforms to the expected transitional stage that occurred during the early evolution of phototrophic euglenids from phagotrophic ancestors. The marine mixotrophic mode of nutrition, the preference for green algal prey cells, the structure of the feeding apparatus, and the organization of the pellicle are outstanding examples of morphostasis that clarify pivotal stages in the evolutionary history of this diverse group of microbial eukaryotes.