Energetics and genetics across the prokaryote-eukaryote divide

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Abstract

BACKGROUND All complex life on Earth is eukaryotic. All eukaryotic cells share a common ancestor that arose just once in four billion years of evolution. Prokaryotes show no tendency to evolve greater morphological complexity, despite their metabolic virtuosity. Here I argue that the eukaryotic cell originated in a unique prokaryotic endosymbiosis, a singular event that transformed the selection pressures acting on both host and endosymbiont. RESULTS The reductive evolution and specialisation of endosymbionts to mitochondria resulted in an extreme genomic asymmetry, in which the residual mitochondrial genomes enabled the expansion of bioenergetic membranes over several orders of magnitude, overcoming the energetic constraints on prokaryotic genome size, and permitting the host cell genome to expand (in principle) over 200,000-fold. This energetic transformation was permissive, not prescriptive; I suggest that the actual increase in early eukaryotic genome size was driven by a heavy early bombardment of genes and introns from the endosymbiont to the host cell, producing a high mutation rate. Unlike prokaryotes, with lower mutation rates and heavy selection pressure to lose genes, early eukaryotes without genome-size limitations could mask mutations by cell fusion and genome duplication, as in allopolyploidy, giving rise to a proto-sexual cell cycle. The side effect was that a large number of shared eukaryotic basal traits accumulated in the same population, a sexual eukaryotic common ancestor, radically different to any known prokaryote. CONCLUSIONS The combination of massive bioenergetic expansion, release from genome-size constraints, and high mutation rate favoured a protosexual cell cycle and the accumulation of eukaryotic traits. These factors explain the unique origin of eukaryotes, the absence of true evolutionary intermediates, and the evolution of sex in eukaryotes but not prokaryotes. REVIEWERS This article was reviewed by: Eugene Koonin, William Martin, Ford Doolittle and Mark van der Giezen. For complete reports see the Reviewers' Comments section.

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