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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Evidence of a chimeric genome in the cyanobacterial ancestor of plastids

Jeferson Gross1, Jörg Meurer2 and Debashish Bhattacharya1*

Author Affiliations

1 University of Iowa, Department of Biological Sciences and the Roy J. Carver Center for Comparative Genomics, 446 Biology Building, Iowa City, Iowa 52242, USA

2 Department Biology I, Botany, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, Menzinger Str. 67, 80638 Munich, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:117  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-117

Published: 23 April 2008

Abstract

Background

Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is a vexing fact of life for microbial phylogeneticists. Given the substantial rates of HGT observed in modern-day bacterial chromosomes, it is envisaged that ancient prokaryotic genomes must have been similarly chimeric. But where can one find an ancient prokaryotic genome that has maintained its ancestral condition to address this issue? An excellent candidate is the cyanobacterial endosymbiont that was harnessed over a billion years ago by a heterotrophic protist, giving rise to the plastid. Genetic remnants of the endosymbiont are still preserved in plastids as a highly reduced chromosome encoding 54 – 264 genes. These data provide an ideal target to assess genome chimericism in an ancient cyanobacterial lineage.

Results

Here we demonstrate that the origin of the plastid-encoded gene cluster for menaquinone/phylloquinone biosynthesis in the extremophilic red algae Cyanidiales contradicts a cyanobacterial genealogy. These genes are relics of an ancestral cluster related to homologs in Chlorobi/Gammaproteobacteria that we hypothesize was established by HGT in the progenitor of plastids, thus providing a 'footprint' of genome chimericism in ancient cyanobacteria. In addition to menB, four components of the original gene cluster (menF, menD, menC, and menH) are now encoded in the nuclear genome of the majority of non-Cyanidiales algae and plants as the unique tetra-gene fusion named PHYLLO. These genes are monophyletic in Plantae and chromalveolates, indicating that loci introduced by HGT into the ancestral cyanobacterium were moved over time into the host nucleus.

Conclusion

Our study provides unambiguous evidence for the existence of genome chimericism in ancient cyanobacteria. In addition we show genes that originated via HGT in the cyanobacterial ancestor of the plastid made their way to the host nucleus via endosymbiotic gene transfer (EGT).