The viral eukaryogenesis hypothesis: a key role for viruses in the emergence of eukaryotes from a prokaryotic world environment

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009 Oct;1178:91-105. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04994.x.


Understanding how the gulf between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cellular design arose is a major challenge. The viral eukaryogenesis (VE) hypothesis addresses the challenge of eukaryotic origins by suggesting the first eukaryotic cell was a multimember consortium consisting of a viral ancestor of the nucleus, an archaeal ancestor of the eukaryotic cytoplasm, and a bacterial ancestor of the mitochondria. Using only prokaryotes and their viruses, and invoking selective pressures observed in modern organisms, the VE hypothesis can explain the origins of the eukaryotic cell, sex, and meiosis. In the VE hypothesis, a cell wall-less archaeon and an alpha-proteobacterium established a syntrophic relationship, and then a complex DNA virus permanently lysogenized the archaeal syntroph to produce a consortium of three organisms that evolved into the eukaryotic cell. The mechanisms by which the virus replicated, controlled its copy number, and segregated to daughter cells led to the evolution of the asexual mitotic replication cycle and the sexual meiotic replication cycle. The VE hypothesis conceptually unifies prokaryotic and eukaryotic sex into variants of a single process.

MeSH terms

  • Archaea / genetics*
  • Bacteria / genetics*
  • Cell Nucleus / metabolism
  • Cytoplasm / metabolism
  • Eukaryotic Cells / cytology
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Meiosis
  • Mitochondria / metabolism
  • Prokaryotic Cells / cytology
  • Viruses / genetics*