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Photosynth Res. 2004;80(1-3):373-86.

Thinking about the evolution of photosynthesis.

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  • 1Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Lederle Graduate Research Center, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA, 01003-4505, USA.


Photosynthesis is an ancient process on Earth. Chemical evidence and recent fossil finds indicate that cyanobacteria existed 2.5-2.6 billion years (Ga) ago, and these were certainly preceded by a variety of forms of anoxygenic photosynthetic bacteria. Carbon isotope data suggest autotrophic carbon fixation was taking place at least a billion years earlier. However, the nature of the earliest photosynthetic organisms is not well understood. The major elements of the photosynthetic apparatus are the reaction centers, antenna complexes, electron transfer complexes and carbon fixation machinery. These parts almost certainly have not had the same evolutionary history in all organisms, so that the photosynthetic apparatus is best viewed as a mosaic made up of a number of substructures each with its own unique evolutionary history. There are two schools of thought concerning the origin of reaction centers and photosynthesis. One school pictures the evolution of reaction centers beginning in the prebiotic phase while the other school sees reaction centers evolving later from cytochrome b in bacteria. Two models have been put forth for the subsequent evolution of reaction centers in proteobacteria, green filamentous (non-sulfur) bacteria, cyanobacteria, heliobacteria and green sulfur bacteria. In the selective loss model the most recent common ancestor of all subsequent photosynthetic systems is postulated to have contained both RC1 and RC2. The evolution of reaction centers in proteobacteria and green filamentous bacteria resulted from the loss of RC1, while the evolution of reaction centers in heliobacteria and green sulfur bacteria resulted from the loss of RC2. Both RC1 and RC2 were retained in the cyanobacteria. In the fusion model the most recent common ancestor is postulated to have given rise to two lines, one containing RC1 and the other containing RC2. The RC1 line gave rise to the reaction centers of heliobacteria and green sulfur bacteria, and the RC2 line led to the reaction centers of proteobacteria and green filamentous bacteria. The two reaction centers of cyanobacteria were the result of a genetic fusion of an organism containing RC1 and an organism containing RC2. The evolutionary histories of the various classes of antenna/light-harvesting complexes appear to be completely independent. The transition from anoxygenic to oxygenic photosynthesis took place when the cyanobacteria learned how to use water as an electron donor for carbon dioxide reduction. Before that time hydrogen peroxide may have served as a transitional donor, and before that, ferrous iron may have been the original source of reducing power.

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