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Molecular evolution of the parasitic green alga, Helicosporidium sp. de Koning, Audrey Patricia


Helicosporidia are single-celled obligate endoparasites of invertebrates. They have a unique morphology and infection strategy, which make them unlike any other eukaryote. Molecular data were produced to clarify their phylogenetic relationship and to examine the evolution of their cryptic plastid. Phylogenetic analyses of 69 ribosomal proteins identified from an expressed sequence tag (EST) library showed that Helicosporidia are derived green algae and more specifically, are related to the trebouxiophyte algae. An obligate parasitic lifestyle is rare among plant and algal groups, and because Helicosporidium possesses no pigments and no chloroplast-like structure has been identified, photosynthetic ability has presumably been lost in this organism. I sought to examine the role that a relict plastid might play in Helicosporidium. I identified ESTs of 20 putatively plastid-targeted enzymes that are involved in a wide variety of metabolic pathways. As expected, no components of photosynthesis were found, but components of other metabolic pathways including sulfur metabolism and fatty acid, isoprenoid and heme biosynthesis suggest that Helicosporidium retains its plastid for these functions. The complete plastid genome of this species of Helicosporidium was sequenced and revealed only four protein-coding genes not involved in transcription or translation, with two of these confirming the metabolic functions suggested by the nuclear-encoded, plastid-targeted genes identified from the ESTs. In addition, the Helicosporidium plastid genome is one of the smallest known (37.5 kb). Its reduced size results from loss of many genes commonly found in plastids of other plants and algae (including all proteins that function in photosynthesis), elimination of duplicated genes and redundant tRNA isoacceptors, and minimization of intergenic spaces. The Helicosporidium plastid genome is also highly structured, with each half of the circular genome containing nearly all genes on one strand. Both the structure and content of the plastid genome and the deduced function of the organelle show parallels with the relict plastid found in the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. These unrelated organisms each evolved from photosynthetic ancestors, and the convergence in form and function of their relict plastids suggest that common forces shape plastid evolution, following the switch from autotrophy to parasitism.

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