Background: Dinoflagellates comprise an ecologically significant and diverse eukaryotic phylum that is sister to the phylum containing apicomplexan endoparasites. The mitochondrial genome of apicomplexans is uniquely reduced in gene content and size, encoding only three proteins and two ribosomal RNAs (rRNAs) within a highly compacted 6 kb DNA. Dinoflagellate mitochondrial genomes have been comparatively poorly studied: limited available data suggest some similarities with apicomplexan mitochondrial genomes but an even more radical type of genomic organization. Here, we investigate structure, content and expression of dinoflagellate mitochondrial genomes.
Results: From two dinoflagellates, Crypthecodinium cohnii and Karlodinium micrum, we generated over 42 kb of mitochondrial genomic data that indicate a reduced gene content paralleling that of mitochondrial genomes in apicomplexans, i.e., only three protein-encoding genes and at least eight conserved components of the highly fragmented large and small subunit rRNAs. Unlike in apicomplexans, dinoflagellate mitochondrial genes occur in multiple copies, often as gene fragments, and in numerous genomic contexts. Analysis of cDNAs suggests several novel aspects of dinoflagellate mitochondrial gene expression. Polycistronic transcripts were found, standard start codons are absent, and oligoadenylation occurs upstream of stop codons, resulting in the absence of termination codons. Transcripts of at least one gene, cox3, are apparently trans-spliced to generate full-length mRNAs. RNA substitutional editing, a process previously identified for mRNAs in dinoflagellate mitochondria, is also implicated in rRNA expression.
Conclusion: The dinoflagellate mitochondrial genome shares the same gene complement and fragmentation of rRNA genes with its apicomplexan counterpart. However, it also exhibits several unique characteristics. Most notable are the expansion of gene copy numbers and their arrangements within the genome, RNA editing, loss of stop codons, and use of trans-splicing.