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Open Access Research article

Horizontal transfer of bacterial polyphosphate kinases to eukaryotes: implications for the ice age and land colonisation

Michael P Whitehead1, Paul Hooley1 and Michael R W Brown2*

Author Affiliations

1 School of Applied Sciences, University of Wolverhampton, Wolverhampton, UK

2 UCL School of Pharmacy, London WC1N 1AX, UK

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BMC Research Notes 2013, 6:221  doi:10.1186/1756-0500-6-221

Published: 5 June 2013

Abstract

Background

Studies of online database(s) showed that convincing examples of eukaryote PPKs derived from bacteria type PPK1 and PPK2 enzymes are rare and currently confined to a few simple eukaryotes. These enzymes probably represent several separate horizontal transfer events. Retention of such sequences may be an advantage for tolerance to stresses such as desiccation or nutrient depletion for simple eukaryotes that lack more sophisticated adaptations available to multicellular organisms. We propose that the acquisition of encoding sequences for these enzymes by horizontal transfer enhanced the ability of early plants to colonise the land. The improved ability to sequester and release inorganic phosphate for carbon fixation by photosynthetic algae in the ocean may have accelerated or even triggered global glaciation events. There is some evidence for DNA sequences encoding PPKs in a wider range of eukaryotes, notably some invertebrates, though it is unclear that these represent functional genes.

Polyphosphate (poly P) is found in all cells, carrying out a wide range of essential roles. Studied mainly in prokaryotes, the enzymes responsible for synthesis of poly P in eukaryotes (polyphosphate kinases PPKs) are not well understood. The best characterised enzyme from bacteria known to catalyse the formation of high molecular weight polyphosphate from ATP is PPK1 which shows some structural similarity to phospholipase D. A second bacterial PPK (PPK2) resembles thymidylate kinase. Recent reports have suggested a widespread distribution of these bacteria type enzymes in eukaryotes.

Results

On – line databases show evidence for the presence of genes encoding PPK1 in only a limited number of eukaryotes. These include the photosynthetic eukaryotes Ostreococcus tauri, O. lucimarinus, Porphyra yezoensis, Cyanidioschyzon merolae and the moss Physcomitrella patens, as well as the amoeboid symbiont Capsaspora owczarzaki and the non-photosynthetic eukaryotes Dictyostelium (3 species), Polysphondylium pallidum and Thecamonas trahens. A second bacterial PPK (PPK2) is found in just two eukaryotes (O. tauri and the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis). There is some evidence for PPK1 and PPK2 encoding sequences in other eukaryotes but some of these may be artefacts of bacterial contamination of gene libraries.

Conclusions

Evidence for the possible origins of these eukaryote PPK1s and PPK2s and potential prokaryote donors via horizontal gene transfer is presented. The selective advantage of acquiring and maintaining a prokaryote PPK in a eukaryote is proposed to enhance stress tolerance in a changing environment related to the capture and metabolism of inorganic phosphate compounds. Bacterial PPKs may also have enhanced the abilities of marine phytoplankton to sequester phosphate, hence accelerating global carbon fixation.

Keywords:
Polyphosphates; Horizontal gene transfer; PPK1; PPK2; Stress responses