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Front Plant Sci. 2013 May 22;4:150. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2013.00150. eCollection 2013.

Fermentation metabolism and its evolution in algae.

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Department of Plant Biology, Carnegie Institution for Science Stanford, CA, USA.


Fermentation or anoxic metabolism allows unicellular organisms to colonize environments that become anoxic. Free-living unicellular algae capable of a photoautotrophic lifestyle can also use a range of metabolic circuitry associated with different branches of fermentation metabolism. While algae that perform mixed-acid fermentation are widespread, the use of anaerobic respiration is more typical of eukaryotic heterotrophs. The occurrence of a core set of fermentation pathways among the algae provides insights into the evolutionary origins of these pathways, which were likely derived from a common ancestral eukaryote. Based on genomic, transcriptomic, and biochemical studies, anaerobic energy metabolism has been examined in more detail in Chlamydomonas reinhardtii (Chlamydomonas) than in any other photosynthetic protist. This green alga is metabolically flexible and can sustain energy generation and maintain cellular redox balance under a variety of different environmental conditions. Fermentation metabolism in Chlamydomonas appears to be highly controlled, and the flexible use of the different branches of fermentation metabolism has been demonstrated in studies of various metabolic mutants. Additionally, when Chlamydomonas ferments polysaccharides, it has the ability to eliminate part of the reductant (to sustain glycolysis) through the production of H2, a molecule that can be developed as a source of renewable energy. To date, little is known about the specific role(s) of the different branches of fermentation metabolism, how photosynthetic eukaryotes sense changes in environmental O2 levels, and the mechanisms involved in controlling these responses, at both the transcriptional and post-transcriptional levels. In this review, we focus on fermentation metabolism in Chlamydomonas and other protists, with only a brief discussion of plant fermentation when relevant, since it is thoroughly discussed in other articles in this volume.


anaerobiosis; anoxic; fermentation; hypoxic; pyruvate metabolism

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