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Mol Biol Evol. 2012 Nov;29(11):3397-412. doi: 10.1093/molbev/mss145. Epub 2012 May 24.

Origin and spread of photosynthesis based upon conserved sequence features in key bacteriochlorophyll biosynthesis proteins.

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Department of Biochemistry, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON, Canada.


The origin of photosynthesis and how this capability has spread to other bacterial phyla remain important unresolved questions. I describe here a number of conserved signature indels (CSIs) in key proteins involved in bacteriochlorophyll (Bchl) biosynthesis that provide important insights in these regards. The proteins BchL and BchX, which are essential for Bchl biosynthesis, are derived by gene duplication in a common ancestor of all phototrophs. More ancient gene duplication gave rise to the BchX-BchL proteins and the NifH protein of the nitrogenase complex. The sequence alignment of NifH-BchX-BchL proteins contain two CSIs that are uniquely shared by all NifH and BchX homologs, but not by any BchL homologs. These CSIs and phylogenetic analysis of NifH-BchX-BchL protein sequences strongly suggest that the BchX homologs are ancestral to BchL and that the Bchl-based anoxygenic photosynthesis originated prior to the chlorophyll (Chl)-based photosynthesis in cyanobacteria. Another CSI in the BchX-BchL sequence alignment that is uniquely shared by all BchX homologs and the BchL sequences from Heliobacteriaceae, but absent in all other BchL homologs, suggests that the BchL homologs from Heliobacteriaceae are primitive in comparison to all other photosynthetic lineages. Several other identified CSIs in the BchN homologs are commonly shared by all proteobacterial homologs and a clade consisting of the marine unicellular Cyanobacteria (Clade C). These CSIs in conjunction with the results of phylogenetic analyses and pair-wise sequence similarity on the BchL, BchN, and BchB proteins, where the homologs from Clade C Cyanobacteria and Proteobacteria exhibited close relationship, provide strong evidence that these two groups have incurred lateral gene transfers. Additionally, phylogenetic analyses and several CSIs in the BchL-N-B proteins that are uniquely shared by all Chlorobi and Chloroflexi homologs provide evidence that the genes for these proteins have also been laterally transferred between these groups. Other results and observations reported here indicate that the genes for the BchL-N-B proteins in Proteobacteria are derived from the Clade C Cyanobacteria, whereas those in Chlorobi were acquired from Chloroflexus or related bacteria by means of LGTs. Some implications of these observations regarding the origin and spread of photosynthesis are discussed.

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