Category: Protistans

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Protistans are a remarkably diverse group of single-celled organisms, all of which are eukaryotic (possessing a nucleus). The issue of how to classify the many kinds of protistans and how to interpret their origins has caused much controversy, and today remains not fully resolved. Recent studies, however, have supported the division of protists into five 'Kingdoms': Rhizaria, Archeplastida, Excavata, Chromalveolata and Amoebozoa. Rhizaria includes amoeboid plankton with mineralised tests (Radiolaria and Foraminifera) as well as cercozoans. Archeplastida encompasses photosynthetic organisms (i.e. with chloroplasts) formed by ancient cyanobacterial endosymbiosis events, including glaucophytes (rare freshwater algae), red algae ('rhodophytes') and green algae ('chlorophytes', technically including the plants, which are multi-cellular and hence not protists!). Secondary endosymbioses of green algae by other eukaryotes lead to the Excavata, which includes the phyla Jakobida, Euglenozoa, Percolozoa and Metamonada (diplomonads and trichomonads), among which we find important human pathogens such as Leishmania, Giardia and Trichomonas. Chromalveolata is a diverse assemblage of algal protists that is thought to have originated from secondary endosymbioses involving red algae. They include the parasitic Apicomplexa (e.g. malaria, Plasmodium falciparum), phytoplanktonic dinoflagellates, ciliates (or Ciliophora), diverse Heterokonta (also known as Stramenopila, and dominated by diatoms), phytoplanktonic Haptophyta (best known for the calcareous-plated coccoliths) and cryptomonads. Finally, the Amoebozoa includes various forms of amoeboe as well as slime moulds such as plasmodial slime moulds (Protostelida) and cellular slime moulds (Dictyostelida), typified by the famous 'social' microbe Dictyostelium. As may be expected, many of these protistan groups provide examples of convergent evolution, most notable of which involve the dinoflagellates.

Dinoflagellates (phylum Dinophyta) are a large group of planktonic algae characterised by two whip-like beating flagella: a longitudinal flagellum pointing posteriorly that propels the cell forwards and a transverse flagellum that controls the direction of travel. For most of its life cycle the dinoflagellate cell is cased in a protective 'cyst' made of organic material (cellulose), and these cysts have been preserved as microfossils in marine sediments since the first appearance of the group in the Triassic (of note, chemical fossils suggest a substantially earlier appearance). The distribution of dinoflagellate populations is controlled by species-specific adaptation to a limited range of temperature, salinity and depth. Although some species inhabit fresh water, most exist as marine plankton and several species periodically form vast algal blooms that can be brightly coloured, neurotoxic or even luminescent. Regarding convergence, polykridid and warnowiid dinoflagellates possess stinging structures that are reminiscent of cnidarian nematocysts and some dinophytes produce saxitoxin, as in some molluscs (e.g. Saxus) crustaceans, fish and cyanobacteria. Among other examples, the endoparasitic dinoflagellate Haplozoon praxillellae stands out, as its form and mode of life mimic that of tapeworms, and also the predatory warnowiids, with their unusual eyes made of modified chloroplasts. Other protistans such as the green algae Chlamydomonas and Volvox have also evolved light sensitive 'eye-spots', notably reminiscent of those in some bacteria, illustrating that such light sensitivity has evolved independently many times. Endosymbiotic dinoflagellates (or 'zooxanthellae') that live inside marine animals show convergence between symbiont species as well as their host organisms, which range from corals and sea anemones to sea slugs, clams and other protists (e.g. foraminifera, ciliates and radiolaria).

Outside the Dinophyta, the convergence between the ciliate Chromidina elegans and dicyemids (in the Lophotrochozoa) is astonishing; both are highly specialised parasites of cephalopod renal organs and have a simplified worm-like form. Certain water-moulds or oomycetes (in the Heterokonta) are strongly convergent with fungal plant pathogens, and in a final and striking molecular example, the mitochondrial gene Cox2 of apicomplexans and green algae show parallel changes in structure and nuclear export.

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Topic Title Teaser text Availablity

Flying through the air on a summer's evening or sparkling in the ocean you may see magical flashes of light that signal some of nature's most enchanting creatures, those that are bioluminescent.

Horizontal gene transfer in bdelloid rotifers, bacteria and protists n/a Not Available
Zooxanthellae in corals and other animals n/a Not Available
Hydrogenosomes and mitosomes n/a Not Available
Mitochondrial genome convergences

Most likely, mitochondria have a single evolutionary origin, but that doesn't mean they are immune to convergence...

Dicyemids and chromidinids: enigmatic endoparasites

Dicyemids and chromidinids are tiny, worm-like or 'vermiform' creatures that typically live inside the kidneys ('renal organs') of cephalopod molluscs such as octopus, squid and cuttlefish.

Halotolerance in bacteria and protistans n/a Not Available
Water-moulds (oomycetes) n/a Not Available
Stephanopogon: a ciliate-like dinoflagellate n/a Not Available
Membrane transport in eukaryotes

Dense core granules (DCGs) are very similar in ciliates and animals, but the systems are clearly convergent, and in particular the recruitment of a key group of proteins (known as dynamins) is independent.

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Surface sculptures: from pollen to protists

Amongst the most striking sculptured surfaces are those seen on pollen and also various protistans, notably the dinoflagellates and a group largely known from the fossil record that are called acritarchs.

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Parasitic dinoflagellates

The majority of dinoflagellates are free-living, but they have adopted parasitism independently a number of times.

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Dinoflagellate “nematocysts”

Examples of convergence within the dinoflagellates range from the evolution of a camera-like eye to stinging 'nematocysts' reminiscent of those in jellyfish.

Sodium voltage-gated ion channels

Sodium voltage-gated ion channels are vital to electric signal transmission, but it is less widely appreciated that they are convergent and have evolved at least twice in groups outside the animals.

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Protistan eye-spots and warnowiid dinoflagellate eyes

Warnowiids propel themselves through the water, but unlike other dinoflagellates which are photosynthetic, they are hunters and the chloroplast is employed to make the lower part of the eye.

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Mitochondrial lens formation in flatworms

In some of the flatworms (platyhelminthes) the lens is formed from mitochondria, and it is intriguing to speculate whether a mitochondrial enzyme has been co-opted to provide a crystallin.

Chloroplast and mitochondrial plastid origins

Not only are there intriguing parallels in the story of gene loss in chloroplasts and mitochondria, but there is also the re-invention of bacterial pathways, such as oxidation of quinols.