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Open Access Research

Did an ancient chlamydial endosymbiosis facilitate the establishment of primary plastids?

Jinling Huang123* and Johann Peter Gogarten3

Author affiliations

1 Department of Biology, Howell Science Complex, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC 27858, USA

2 NASA Astrobiology Institute at Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, MA 02543, USA

3 Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of Connecticut, 91 North Eagleville Road, Storrs, CT 06269-3125, USA

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Citation and License

Genome Biology 2007, 8:R99  doi:10.1186/gb-2007-8-6-r99

Published: 4 June 2007

Abstract

Background

Ancient endosymbioses are responsible for the origins of mitochondria and plastids, and they contribute to the divergence of several major eukaryotic groups. Although chlamydiae, a group of obligate intracellular bacteria, are not found in plants, an unexpected number of chlamydial genes are most similar to plant homologs, which, interestingly, often contain a plastid-targeting signal. This observation has prompted several hypotheses, including gene transfer between chlamydiae and plant-related groups and an ancestral relationship between chlamydiae and cyanobacteria.

Results

We conducted phylogenomic analyses of the red alga Cyanidioschyzon merolae to identify genes specifically related to chlamydial homologs. We show that at least 21 genes were transferred between chlamydiae and primary photosynthetic eukaryotes, with the donor most similar to the environmental Protochlamydia. Such an unusually high number of transferred genes suggests an ancient chlamydial endosymbiosis with the ancestral primary photosynthetic eukaryote. We hypothesize that three organisms were involved in establishing the primary photosynthetic lineage: the eukaryotic host cell, the cyanobacterial endosymbiont that provided photosynthetic capability, and a chlamydial endosymbiont or parasite that facilitated the establishment of the cyanobacterial endosymbiont.

Conclusion

Our findings provide a glimpse into the complex interactions that were necessary to establish the primary endosymbiotic relationship between plastid and host cytoplasms, and thereby explain the rarity with which long-term successful endosymbiotic relationships between heterotrophs and photoautotrophs were established. Our data also provide strong and independent support for a common origin of all primary photosynthetic eukaryotes and of the plastids they harbor.