Plastid Origin and Evolution


Plastids (or chloroplasts in plants) are organelles within which photosynthesis takes place in eukaryotes. The origin of the widespread plastid traces back to a cyanobacterium that was engulfed and retained by a heterotrophic protist through a process termed primary endosymbiosis. Subsequent (serial) events of endosymbiosis, involving red and green algae and potentially other eukaryotes, yielded the so‐called ‘complex’ plastids found in photosynthetic taxa such as diatoms, dinoflagellates and euglenids. The field of plastid research also includes nonphotosynthetic organelles (apicoplasts) within the parasitic apicomplexans and the temporary sequestration (‘theft’) of plastids by heterotrophic organisms (kleptoplasty) such as the sea slug Elysia chlorotica. The gain and loss of plastids, and nonlineal gene transfer (associated with endosymbiosis) are key aspects of algal evolution that have decisive impacts on inference of their phylogenetic positions in the tree of life. Deciphering plastid origin therefore provides general insights into the evolution of eukaryote lineages.

Key Concepts:

  • The plastid organelle in eukaryotes originated from primary endosymbiosis involving a cyanobacterium.

  • The secondary (and tertiary) plastids show a history of multiple (serial) endosymbiosis involving red and/or green algae.

  • Plastid research is complicated by the presence of nonphotosynthetic plastids in parasitic apicomplexans and by the theft of temporary plastids referred to as kleptoplasty.

  • Understanding plastid origin enhances our understanding of eukaryote evolution.

Keywords: plastid; chloroplast; endosymbiosis; eukaryote evolution; photosynthesis; algae; plants

Figure 1.

Current understanding of plastid origins in eukaryotes. Primary cyanobacterial endosymbiosis is thought to have given rise to the plastid shared by all Plantae lineages. An independent primary endosymbiosis gave rise to the plastid in the photosynthetic species of Paulinella (Rhizaria). Subsequent events of endosymbiosis, involving a red algal cell are implicated in the origin of plastids in chromalveolates (lineages that bear the complex chlorophyll a+c plastids). Three proposed evolutionary histories of chromalveolate plastid origin based on current literature are shown: (a) a single secondary red algal endosymbiosis that gave rise to the plastid in most chromalveolate lineages, according to the chromalveolate hypothesis; (b) secondary red algal endosymbiosis giving rise to the plastid in peridinin‐type dinoflagellates, with a tertiary haptophyte endosymbiosis giving rise to the plastid in fucoxanthin‐type dinoflagellates; (c) secondary red algal endosymbiosis that was potentially preceded by a cryptic green algal endosymbiosis, giving rise to the ancestral chromalveolate plastid but a genome with hundreds of genes of both green and red algal origin.



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Further Reading

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Chan, Cheong Xin, and Bhattacharya, Debashish(Nov 2011) Plastid Origin and Evolution. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0023639]