Gaining the ability to photosynthesize was a key event in eukaryotic evolution because algae and plants form the base of the food chain on our planet. The eukaryotic machines of photosynthesis are plastids (e.g., chloroplast in plants) that evolved from cyanobacteria through primary endosymbiosis. Our knowledge of plastid evolution, however, remains limited because the primary endosymbiosis occurred more than a billion years ago. In this context, the thecate "green amoeba" Paulinella chromatophora is remarkable because it very recently (i.e., minimum age of ≈ 60 million years ago) acquired a photosynthetic organelle (termed a "chromatophore"; i.e., plastid) via an independent primary endosymbiosis involving a Prochlorococcus or Synechococcus-like cyanobacterium. All data regarding P. chromatophora stem from a single isolate from Germany (strain M0880/a). Here we brought into culture a novel photosynthetic Paulinella strain (FK01) and generated molecular sequence data from these cells and from four different cell samples, all isolated from freshwater habitats in Japan. Our study had two aims. The first was to compare and contrast cell ultrastructure of the M0880/a and FK01 strains using scanning electron microscopy. The second was to assess the phylogenetic diversity of photosynthetic Paulinella to test the hypothesis they share a vertically inherited plastid that originated in their common ancestor.
Comparative morphological analyses show that Paulinella FK01 cells are smaller than M0880/a and differ with respect to the number of scales per column. There are more distinctive, multiple fine pores on the external surface of FK01 than in M0880/a. Molecular phylogenetic analyses using multiple gene markers demonstrate these strains are genetically distinct and likely comprise separate species. The well-supported monophyly of the Paulinella chromatophora strains analyzed here using plastid-encoded 16S rRNA suggests strongly that they all share a common photosynthetic ancestor. The strain M0880/a is most closely related to Japanese isolates (Kanazawa-1, -2, and Kaga), whereas FK01 groups closely with a Kawaguchi isolate.
Our results indicate that Paulinella chromatophora comprises at least two distinct evolutionary lineages and likely encompasses a broader taxonomic diversity than previously thought. The finding of a single plastid origin for both lineages shows these taxa to be valuable models for studying post-endosymbiotic cell and genome evolution.