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J Mol Evol. 2011 Jun;72(5-6):484-97. doi: 10.1007/s00239-011-9447-2. Epub 2011 May 20.

The evolution of respiratory chain complex I from a smaller last common ancestor consisting of 11 protein subunits.

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Department of Biochemistry and Structural Biology, Center for Molecular Protein Science, Lund University, Sweden.


The NADH:quinone oxidoreductase (complex I) has evolved from a combination of smaller functional building blocks. Chloroplasts and cyanobacteria contain a complex I-like enzyme having only 11 subunits. This enzyme lacks the N-module which harbors the NADH binding site and the flavin and iron-sulfur cluster prosthetic groups. A complex I-homologous enzyme found in some archaea contains an F(420) dehydrogenase subunit denoted as FpoF rather than the N-module. In the present study, all currently available whole genome sequences were used to survey the occurrence of the different types of complex I in the different kingdoms of life. Notably, the 11-subunit version of complex I was found to be widely distributed, both in the archaeal and in the eubacterial kingdoms, whereas the 14-subunit classical complex I was found only in certain eubacterial phyla. The FpoF-containing complex I was present in Euryarchaeota but not in Crenarchaeota, which contained the 11-subunit complex I. The 11-subunit enzymes showed a primary sequence variability as great or greater than the full-size 14-subunit complex I, but differed distinctly from the membrane-bound hydrogenases. We conclude that this type of compact 11-subunit complex I is ancestral to all present-day complex I enzymes. No designated partner protein, acting as an electron delivery device, could be found for the compact version of complex I. We propose that the primordial complex I, and many of the present-day 11-subunit versions of it, operate without a designated partner protein but are capable of interaction with several different electron donor or acceptor proteins.

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