Genomic Footprints of a Cryptic Plastid Endosymbiosis in Diatoms

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Science  26 Jun 2009:
Vol. 324, Issue 5935, pp. 1724-1726
DOI: 10.1126/science.1172983

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Green for Diatoms

Diatoms account for 20% of global carbon fixation and, together with other chromalveolates (e.g., dinoflagellates and coccolithophorids), represent many thousands of eukaryote taxa in the world's oceans and on the tree of life. Moustafa et al. (p. 1724; see the Perspective by Dagan and Martin) have discovered that the genomes of diatoms are highly chimeric, with about 10% of their nuclear genes being of foreign algal origin. Of this set of 1272 algal genes, 253 were, as expected, from a distant red algal secondary endosymbiont, but more than 1000 of the genes were derived from green algae and predated the red algal relationship. These protist taxa are important not only for genetic and genomic investigations but also for their potential in biofuel and nanotechnology applications and in global primary productivity in relation to climate change.


Diatoms and other chromalveolates are among the dominant phytoplankters in the world’s oceans. Endosymbiosis was essential to the success of chromalveolates, and it appears that the ancestral plastid in this group had a red algal origin via an ancient secondary endosymbiosis. However, recent analyses have turned up a handful of nuclear genes in chromalveolates that are of green algal derivation. Using a genome-wide approach to estimate the “green” contribution to diatoms, we identified >1700 green gene transfers, constituting 16% of the diatom nuclear coding potential. These genes were probably introduced into diatoms and other chromalveolates from a cryptic endosymbiont related to prasinophyte-like green algae. Chromalveolates appear to have recruited genes from the two major existing algal groups to forge a highly successful, species-rich protist lineage.

  • * These authors contributed equally to this work.

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