Gene Transfer from Bacteria and Archaea Facilitated Evolution of an Extremophilic Eukaryote

Science  08 Mar 2013:
Vol. 339, Issue 6124, pp. 1207-1210
DOI: 10.1126/science.1231707

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Hot, Toxic Eukaryote

Unusually, the single-celled eukaryote red alga, Galdieria sulphuraria, can thrive in hot, acidic springs. This organism is endowed with extraordinary metabolic talents and can consume a variety of strange carbohydrates, as well as turn on photosynthesis when the food runs out. Schönknecht et al. (p. 1207; see the Perspective by Rocha) discerned from phylogenetic analysis of its genome that during its evolution, G. sulphuraria appears to have commandeered at least 75 bacterial and archaeal genes by horizontal gene transfer and then applied gene expansion to boost its metabolic repertoire.


Some microbial eukaryotes, such as the extremophilic red alga Galdieria sulphuraria, live in hot, toxic metal-rich, acidic environments. To elucidate the underlying molecular mechanisms of adaptation, we sequenced the 13.7-megabase genome of G. sulphuraria. This alga shows an enormous metabolic flexibility, growing either photoautotrophically or heterotrophically on more than 50 carbon sources. Environmental adaptation seems to have been facilitated by horizontal gene transfer from various bacteria and archaea, often followed by gene family expansion. At least 5% of protein-coding genes of G. sulphuraria were probably acquired horizontally. These proteins are involved in ecologically important processes ranging from heavy-metal detoxification to glycerol uptake and metabolism. Thus, our findings show that a pan-domain gene pool has facilitated environmental adaptation in this unicellular eukaryote.

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