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Open Access Research article

The cyanobacterial endosymbiont of the unicellular algae Rhopalodia gibba shows reductive genome evolution

Christoph Kneip12, Christine Voβ1, Peter J Lockhart3 and Uwe G Maier1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Cell Biology, Philipps-University Marburg, Marburg, Germany

2 Present address: Department of Molecular Biology, Max-Planck-Institute for Infection Biology, Berlin, Germany

3 Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution, Institute of Molecular BioSciences, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:30  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-30

Published: 28 January 2008

Abstract

Background

Bacteria occur in facultative association and intracellular symbiosis with a diversity of eukaryotic hosts. Recently, we have helped to characterise an intracellular nitrogen fixing bacterium, the so-called spheroid body, located within the diatom Rhopalodia gibba. Spheroid bodies are of cyanobacterial origin and exhibit features that suggest physiological adaptation to their intracellular life style. To investigate the genome modifications that have accompanied the process of endosymbiosis, here we compare gene structure, content and organisation in spheroid body and cyanobacterial genomes.

Results

Comparison of the spheroid body's genome sequence with corresponding regions of near free-living relatives indicates that multiple modifications have occurred in the endosymbiont's genome. These include localised changes that have led to elimination of some genes. This gene loss has been accompanied either by deletion of the respective DNA region or replacement with non-coding DNA that is AT rich in composition. In addition, genome modifications have led to the fusion and truncation of genes. We also report that in the spheroid body's genome there is an accumulation of deleterious mutations in genes for cell wall biosynthesis and processes controlled by transposases. Interestingly, the formation of pseudogenes in the spheroid body has occurred in the presence of intact, and presumably functional, recA and recF genes. This is in contrast to the situation in most investigated obligate intracellular bacterium-eukaryote symbioses, where at least either recA or recF has been eliminated.

Conclusion

Our analyses suggest highly specific targeting/loss of individual genes during the process of genome reduction and establishment of a cyanobacterial endosymbiont inside a eukaryotic cell. Our findings confirm, at the genome level, earlier speculation on the obligate intracellular status of the spheroid body in Rhopalodia gibba. This association is the first example of an obligate cyanobacterial symbiosis involving nitrogen fixation for which genomic data are available. It represents a new model system to study molecular adaptations of genome evolution that accompany a switch from free-living to intracellular existence.