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Publications of the Week

A New Lineage of Eukaryotes Illuminates Early Mitochondrial Genome Reduction

By December 14, 2017No Comments

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 This week we profile a recent publication in Current Biology from the laboratory of
Dr. Patrick Keeling (front, second from right) at the University of British Columbia.

Can you provide a brief overview of your lab’s current research focus?

Research in the lab is actually not particularly focused on one question, I think in part because diversity is what interests us, so different people work on very different questions. These questions do revolve around protists, or microbial eukaryotes, which represent most eukaryotic diversity (animals, fungi, and plants are three of perhaps dozens of lineages of eukaryotes, and protists are all the rest). We are also interested in major evolutionary transitions, so how a free living organism evolves into an intracellular parasite, or how a heterotrophic organism becomes photosynthetic, and also the process of symbiosis, or how two or more organisms change when living in a close functional relationship.

What is the significance of the findings in this publication?

This publication describes a new species which is so distantly related to any known eukaryote that it represents what we call a new “supergroup”. Supergroups are bigger than kingdoms (so fungi and animals belong to the same supergroup, for example). It is interesting this slice of diversity has remained hidden for so long, but these kinds of discoveries are also interesting because they can help us piece together all kinds of evolutionary changes across the whole tree. So in this case the new organism’s mitochondrial genome was surprisingly rich in genes, and if you look at the distribution of those genes across the tree of eukaryotes, it showed that the mitochondrial genome of the ancestor of eukaryotes had more genes that we would have thought, and showed us a few surprising things about how the process of genome reduction took place.

What are the next steps for this research?

As part of the larger picture, our goal is to “keep looking” for new lineages and use them to fill in these gaps in our understanding of evolution. This sounds like a needle in a haystack, and I suppose it is. But on the other hand, the microbial world is so poorly explored that there are lots of these treasures out there undiscovered, and we are currently working on several more new lineages that we have either growing in the lab or isolated from their hosts in the case of parasites. Each of these can tell a different kind of story, so we just need to look at them and find that story. Science is not just hypothesis testing, there is a lot more exploration to be done too.

This research was funded by:

Our work is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, as well as the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Tula Foundation.

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