Dating the cyanobacterial ancestor of the chloroplast

ISME J. 2010 Jun;4(6):777-83. doi: 10.1038/ismej.2010.2. Epub 2010 Mar 4.


Cyanobacteria have had a pivotal role in the history of life on Earth being the first organisms to perform oxygenic photosynthesis, which changed the atmospheric chemistry and allowed the evolution of aerobic Eukarya. Chloroplasts are the cellular organelles of photoautotrophic eukaryotes in which most portions of photosynthesis occur. Although the initial suggestion that cyanobacteria are the ancestors of chloroplasts was greeted with skepticism, the idea is now widely accepted. Here we attempt to resolve and date the cyanobacterial ancestry of the chloroplast using phylogenetic analysis and molecular clocks. We found that chloroplasts form a monophyletic lineage, are most closely related to subsection-I, N(2)-fixing unicellular cyanobacteria (Order Chroococcales), and heterocyst-forming Order Nostocales cyanobacteria are their sister group. Nostocales and Chroococcales appeared during the Paleoproterozoic and chloroplasts appeared in the mid-Proterozoic. The capability of N(2) fixation in cyanobacteria may have appeared only once during the late Archaean and early Proterozoic eons. Furthermore, we found that oxygen-evolving cyanobacteria could have appeared in the Archaean. Our results suggest that a free-living cyanobacterium with the capacity to store starch through oxygenic CO(2) fixation, and to fix atmospheric N(2), would be a very important intracellular acquisition, which, as can be recounted today from several lines of evidence, would have become the chloroplast by endosymbiosis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution*
  • Chloroplasts / classification
  • Chloroplasts / genetics*
  • Cyanobacteria / classification
  • Cyanobacteria / genetics*
  • Nitrogen Fixation
  • Photosynthesis
  • Phylogeny*
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S / genetics


  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S