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Mystery of photosynthetic algae evolution finally solved — ScienceDaily

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An evolutionary thriller that had eluded molecular biologists for many years could by no means have been solved if it weren’t for the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Being caught at house was a blessing in disguise, as there have been no experiments that may very well be performed. We simply had our computer systems and many time,” says Professor Paul Curmi, a structural biologist and molecular biophysicist with UNSW Sydney.

Prof. Curmi is referring to analysis printed this month in Nature Communications that particulars the painstaking unravelling and reconstruction of a key protein in a single-celled, photosynthetic organism referred to as a cryptophyte, a sort of algae that advanced over a billion years in the past.

Up till now, how cryptophytes acquired the proteins used to seize and funnel daylight for use by the cell had molecular biologists scratching their heads. They already knew that the protein was a part of a type of antenna that the organism used to transform daylight into power. In addition they knew that the cryptophyte had inherited some antenna elements from its photosynthetic ancestors — purple algae, and earlier than that cyanobacteria, one of many earliest lifeforms on earth which are answerable for stromatolites.

However how the protein buildings match collectively within the cryptophyte’s personal, novel antenna construction remained a thriller — till Prof. Curmi, PhD pupil Harry Rathbone and colleagues from College of Queensland and College of British Columbia pored over the electron microscope photos of the antenna protein from a progenitor purple algal organism made public by Chinese language researchers in March 2020.

Unravelling the thriller meant the staff may lastly inform the story of how this protein had enabled these historical single-celled organisms to thrive in probably the most inhospitable situations — metres below water with little or no direct daylight to transform into power.

Prof. Curmi says the key implications of the work are for evolutionary biology.

“We offer a direct hyperlink between two very totally different antenna programs and open the door for locating precisely how one system advanced into a unique system — the place each look like very environment friendly in capturing mild,” he says.

“Photosynthetic algae have many alternative antenna programs which have the property of with the ability to seize each accessible mild photon and transferring it to a photosystem protein that converts the sunshine power to chemical power.”

By working to grasp the algal programs, the scientists hope to uncover the basic bodily rules that underlie the beautiful photon effectivity of those photosynthetic programs. Prof. Curmi says these could sooner or later have software in optical gadgets together with photo voltaic power programs.


To higher respect the importance of the protein discovery, it helps to grasp the very unusual world of single-celled organisms which take the adage “you might be what you eat” to a brand new degree.

As examine lead creator, PhD pupil Harry Rathbone explains, when a single-celled organism swallows one other, it could actually enter a relationship of endosymbiosis, the place one organism lives inside the opposite and the 2 grow to be inseparable.

“Typically with algae, they will go and discover some lunch — one other alga — and so they’ll determine to not digest it. They’re going to preserve it to do its bidding, basically,” Mr Rathbone says. “And people new organisms might be swallowed by different organisms in the identical means, type of like a matryoshka doll.”

Actually, that is probably what occurred when about one and a half billion years in the past, a cyanobacterium was swallowed by one other single-celled organism. The cyanobacteria already had a classy antenna of proteins that trapped each photon of sunshine. However as a substitute of digesting the cyanobacterium, the host organism successfully stripped it for elements — retaining the antenna protein construction that the brand new organism — the purple algae — used for power.

And when one other organism swallowed a purple alga to grow to be the primary cryptophyte, it was the same story. Besides this time the antenna was delivered to the opposite aspect of the membrane of the host organism and utterly remoulded into new protein shapes that have been equally as environment friendly at trapping daylight photons.


As Prof. Curmi explains, these have been the primary tiny steps in direction of the evolution of recent vegetation and different photosynthetic organisms similar to seaweeds.

“In going from cyanobacteria which are photosynthetic, to every part else on the planet that’s photosynthetic, some historical ancestor wolfed up a cyanobacteria which then turned the cell’s chloroplast that converts daylight into chemical power.

“And the deal between the organisms is type of like, I will preserve you protected so long as you do photosynthesis and provides me power.”

One of many collaborators on this venture, Dr Beverley Inexperienced, Professor Emerita with the College of British Columbia’s Division of Botany says Prof. Curmi was in a position to make the invention by approaching the issue from a unique angle.

“Paul’s novel method was to seek for ancestral proteins on the premise of form relatively than similarity in amino acid sequence,” she says.

“By looking the 3D buildings of two purple algal multi-protein complexes for segments of protein that folded in the identical means because the cryptophyte protein, he was capable of finding the lacking puzzle piece.”

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