Background: Paulinella chromatophora is a freshwater filose amoeba with photosynthetic endosymbionts (chromatophores) of cyanobacterial origin that are closely related to free-living Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus species (PS-clade). Members of the PS-clade of cyanobacteria contain a proteobacterial form 1A RubisCO (ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase) that was acquired by horizontal gene transfer (HGT) of a carboxysomal operon. In rDNA-phylogenies, the Paulinella chromatophore diverged basal to the PS-clade, raising the question whether the HGT occurred before or after the split of the chromatophore ancestor.
Results: Phylogenetic analyses of the almost complete rDNA operon with an improved taxon sampling containing most known cyanobacterial lineages recovered the Paulinella chromatophore as sister to the complete PS-clade. The sequence of the complete carboxysomal operon of Paulinella was determined. Analysis of RubisCO large subunit (rbcL) sequences revealed that Paulinella shares the proteobacterial form 1A RubisCO with the PS-clade. The gamma-proteobacterium Nitrococcus mobilis was identified as sister of the Paulinella chromatophore and the PS-clade in the RubisCO phylogeny. Gene content and order in the carboxysomal operon correlates well with the RubisCO phylogeny demonstrating that the complete carboxysomal operon was acquired by the common ancestor of the Paulinella chromatophore and the PS-clade through HGT. The carboxysomal operon shows a significantly elevated AT content in Paulinella, which in the rbcL gene is confined to third codon positions. Combined phylogenies using rbcL and the rDNA-operon resulted in a nearly fully resolved tree of the PS-clade.
Conclusion: The HGT of the carboxysomal operon predated the divergence of the chromatophore ancestor from the PS-clade. Following HGT and divergence of the chromatophore ancestor, diversification of the PS-clade into at least three subclades occurred. The gamma-proteobacterium Nitrococcus mobilis represents the closest known relative to the donor of the carboxysomal operon. The isolated position of the Paulinella chromatophore in molecular phylogenies as well as its elevated AT content suggests that the Paulinella chromatophore has already undergone typical steps in the reductive evolution of an endosymbiont.