The eukaryotic phylum Apicomplexa encompasses thousands of obligate intracellular parasites of humans and animals with immense socio-economic and health impacts. We sequenced nuclear genomes of Chromera velia and Vitrella brassicaformis, free-living non-parasitic photosynthetic algae closely related to apicomplexans. Proteins from key metabolic pathways and from the endomembrane trafficking systems associated with a free-living lifestyle have been progressively and non-randomly lost during adaptation to parasitism. The free-living ancestor contained a broad repertoire of genes many of which were repurposed for parasitic processes, such as extracellular proteins, components of a motility apparatus, and DNA- and RNA-binding protein families. Based on transcriptome analyses across 36 environmental conditions, Chromera orthologs of apicomplexan invasion-related motility genes were co-regulated with genes encoding the flagellar apparatus, supporting the functional contribution of flagella to the evolution of invasion machinery. This study provides insights into how obligate parasites with diverse life strategies arose from a once free-living phototrophic marine alga.
Single-celled parasites cause many severe diseases in humans and animals. The apicomplexans form probably the most successful group of these parasites and include the parasites that cause malaria. Apicomplexans infect a broad range of hosts, including humans, reptiles, birds, and insects, and often have complicated life cycles. For example, the malaria-causing parasites spread by moving from humans to female mosquitoes and then back to humans.
Despite significant differences amongst apicomplexans, these single-celled parasites also share a number of features that are not seen in other living species. How and when these features arose remains unclear. It is known from previous work that apicomplexans are closely related to single-celled algae. But unlike apicomplexans, which depend on a host animal to survive, these algae live freely in their environment, often in close association with corals.
Woo et al. have now sequenced the genomes of two photosynthetic algae that are thought to be close living relatives of the apicomplexans. These genomes were then compared to each other and to the genomes of other algae and apicomplexans. These comparisons reconfirmed that the two algae that were studied were close relatives of the apicomplexans.
Further analyses suggested that thousands of genes were lost as an ancient free-living algae evolved into the apicomplexan ancestor, and further losses occurred as these early parasites evolved into modern species. The lost genes were typically those that are important for free-living organisms, but are either a hindrance to, or not needed in, a parasitic lifestyle. Some of the ancestor's genes, especially those that coded for the building blocks of flagella (structures which free-living algae use to move around), were repurposed in ways that helped the apicomplexans to invade their hosts. Understanding this repurposing process in greater detail will help to identify key molecules in these deadly parasites that could be targeted by drug treatments. It will also offer answers to one of the most fascinating questions in evolutionary biology: how parasites have evolved from free-living organisms.