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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The complete plastid genome sequence of the parasitic green alga Helicosporidium sp. is highly reduced and structured

Audrey P de Koning* and Patrick J Keeling

Author Affiliations

Department of Botany, University of British Columbia. 3529-6270 University Blvd. Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z4, Canada

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BMC Biology 2006, 4:12  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-4-12

Published: 21 April 2006



Loss of photosynthesis has occurred independently in several plant and algal lineages, and represents a major metabolic shift with potential consequences for the content and structure of plastid genomes. To investigate such changes, we sequenced the complete plastid genome of the parasitic, non-photosynthetic green alga, Helicosporidium.


The Helicosporidium plastid genome is among the smallest known (37.5 kb), and like other plastids from non-photosynthetic organisms it lacks all genes for proteins that function in photosynthesis. Its reduced size results from more than just loss of genes, however; it has little non-coding DNA, with only one intron and tiny intergenic spaces, and no inverted repeat (no duplicated genes at all). It encodes precisely the minimal complement of tRNAs needed to translate the universal genetic code, and has eliminated all redundant isoacceptors. The Helicosporidium plastid genome is also highly structured, with each half of the circular genome containing nearly all genes on one strand. Helicosporidium is known to be related to trebouxiophyte green algae, but the genome is structured and compacted in a manner more reminiscent of the non-photosynthetic plastids of apicomplexan parasites.


Helicosporidium contributes significantly to our understanding of the evolution of plastid DNA because it illustrates the highly ordered reduction that occurred following the loss of a major metabolic function. The convergence of plastid genome structure in Helicosporidium and the Apicomplexa raises the interesting possibility that there are common forces that shape plastid genomes, subsequent to the loss of photosynthesis in an organism.