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Evolving a photosynthetic organelle

Takuro Nakayama and John M Archibald*

Author Affiliations

Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, Program in Integrated Microbial Biodiversity, Dalhousie University, Sir Charles Tupper Medical Building, 5850 College Street, PO BOX 15000, Halifax, Nova Scotia, B3H 4R2, Canada

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BMC Biology 2012, 10:35  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-10-35

Published: 24 April 2012


The evolution of plastids from cyanobacteria is believed to represent a singularity in the history of life. The enigmatic amoeba Paulinella and its 'recently' acquired photosynthetic inclusions provide a fascinating system through which to gain fresh insight into how endosymbionts become organelles.

The plastids, or chloroplasts, of algae and plants evolved from cyanobacteria by endosymbiosis. This landmark event conferred on eukaryotes the benefits of photosynthesis - the conversion of solar energy into chemical energy - and in so doing had a huge impact on the course of evolution and the climate of Earth [1]. From the present state of plastids, however, it is difficult to trace the evolutionary steps involved in this momentous development, because all modern-day plastids have fully integrated into their hosts. Paulinella chromatophora is a unicellular eukaryote that bears photosynthetic entities called chromatophores that are derived from cyanobacteria and has thus received much attention as a possible example of an organism in the early stages of organellogenesis. Recent studies have unlocked the genomic secrets of its chromatophore [2,3] and provided concrete evidence that the Paulinella chromatophore is a bona fide photosynthetic organelle [4]. The question is how Paulinella can help us to understand the process by which an endosymbiont is converted into an organelle.