Humans might not be walking on the face of the Earth were it not for the ancient fusing of two prokaryotes - tiny life forms that do not have a cellular nucleus. Important new insights about prokaryotes and the evolution of life are published by UCLA molecular biologist James A. Lake 20 August in the advanced online edition of the journal Nature.
Endosymbiosis refers to a cell living within another cell. If they live together long enough, the two organisms will exchange genes; they merge, but often keep their own cell membranes, and sometimes keep their own genomes.
Lake has discovered the first exclusively prokaryote endosymbiosis. All other endosymbioses have involved a eukaryote (a cell with a nucleus, as found in all multicellular forms of life, such as humans, animals and plants).
'This relationship resulted in a totally different type of life on Earth,' said Lake, UCLA distinguished professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology and human genetics. 'We thought eukaryotes always needed to be present to do it, but we were wrong.'
'This work is a major advance in our understanding of how a group of organisms came to be that learned to harness the sun and then effected the greatest environmental change the Earth has ever seen, in this case with beneficial results,' said Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, headquartered at NASA Ames Research Centre in Moffett Field, CA, which co-funded the study, along with the National Science Foundation.
In the Nature paper, Lake is reporting that two groups of prokaryotes, known as actinobacteria and clostridia, came together and produced the 'double membrane' prokaryotes.
'Higher life would not have happened without this event,' Lake said. 'These are very important organisms. At the time these two early prokaryotes were evolving, there was no oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere. Humans could not live. No oxygen-breathing organisms could live.'
The oxygen on the Earth is the result of a sub-group of the double membrane prokaryotes, Lake said. These organisms, the cyanobacteria, have been growing tremendously, pumping oxygen into the atmosphere; we could not breathe without them. In addition, the double membrane prokaryotic fusion supplied the mitochondria that are present in every human cell, he said.
'Along came these organisms - the double membrane prokaryotes - that could use sunlight,' he said. 'They captured this vast energy resource. They were so successful that they have more genetic diversity in them than all other prokaryotes.
'We have a flow of genes from two different organisms (clostridia and actinobacteria) together,' he said. 'Because the group into which they are flowing has two membranes, we hypothesise that that was an endosymbiosis that resulted in a double membrane. It looks as if a single-membrane organism has engulfed another. The genomes are telling us that the double membrane prokaryotes combine sets of genes from the two different organisms.'
In this study, Lake has looked back more than two-and-a-half billion years. He conducted an analysis of the genomics of the five groups of prokaryotes.
Lake is interested in learning how every organism is related.
'We all are interested in our ancestors,' he said. 'A friend at UC Berkeley, Alan Wilson, was the first person to collect DNA from large numbers of people around the world. He showed that we are all related to a woman who lived in Africa 200,000 years ago. Some in the media called her Eve. He called her the Lucky Mother, the mother of us all.
'In our field, we have enormous amounts of data, but cannot make sense of it all. Endosymbiosis allows us to start to understanding things; it tells us that many genes are exchanged.
'We have been overlooking how important cooperation is. If two prokaryotes get together, they can change the world. They re-structured the atmosphere of the Earth. It's a message that evolution is giving us: Cooperation is a way to get ahead.'
Actinobacteria have an unusual DNA composition, with a very high amount of the 'G' and 'C' chemicals called nucleotides - whose patterns carry the data required for constructing proteins. (Nucleotides are designated by the letters A, G, C and T. The sequence of nucleotides serves as a chemical code.) Some are pathogens, including ones that cause tuberculosis and leprosy.
Some clostridia can photosynthesise, which no other single membrane prokaryote does. Photosynthesis may have been developed in clostridia.
Double membrane prokaryotes include the pathogens that cause ulcers, as well as the organisms that led to the creation of the chloroplasts that are in all green plants, which make their growth possible.