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Am Nat. 1999 Oct;154(S4):S146-S163.

Reconstructing Early Events in Eukaryotic Evolution.


Resolving the order of events that occurred during the transition from prokaryotic to eukaryotic cells remains one of the greatest problems in cell evolution. One view, the Archezoa hypothesis, proposes that the endosymbiotic origin of mitochondria occurred relatively late in eukaryotic evolution and that several mitochondrion-lacking protist groups diverged before the establishment of the organelle. Phylogenies based on small subunit ribosomal RNA and several protein-coding genes supported this proposal, placing amitochondriate protists such as diplomonads, parabasalids, and Microsporidia as the earliest diverging eukaryotic lineages. However, trees of other molecules, such as tubulins, heat shock protein 70, TATA box-binding protein, and the largest subunit of RNA polymerase II, indicate that Microsporidia are not deeply branching eukaryotes but instead are close relatives of the Fungi. Furthermore, recent discoveries of mitochondrion-derived genes in the nuclear genomes of entamoebae, Microsporidia, parabasalids, and diplomonads suggest that these organisms likely descend from mitochondrion-bearing ancestors. Although several protist lineages formally remain as candidates for Archezoa, most evidence suggests that the mitochondrial endosymbiosis took place prior to the divergence of all extant eukaryotes. In addition, discoveries of proteobacterial-like nuclear genes coding for cytoplasmic proteins indicate that the mitochondrial symbiont may have contributed more to the eukaryotic lineage than previously thought. As genome sequence data from parabasalids and diplomonads accumulate, it is becoming clear that the last common ancestor of these protist taxa and other extant eukaryotic groups already possessed many of the complex features found in most eukaryotes but lacking in prokaryotes. However, our confidence in the deeply branching position of diplomonads and parabasalids among eukaryotes is weakened by conflicting phylogenies and potential sources of artifact. Our current picture of early eukaryotic evolution is in a state of flux.


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