Background: In 2004, we discovered an atypical protein in metagenomic data from marine thaumarchaeotal species. This protein, referred as DnaJ-Fer, is composed of a J domain fused to a Ferredoxin (Fer) domain. Surprisingly, the same protein was also found in Viridiplantae (green algae and land plants). Because J domain-containing proteins are known to interact with the major chaperone DnaK/Hsp70, this suggested that a DnaK protein was present in Thaumarchaeota. DnaK/Hsp70, its co-chaperone DnaJ and the nucleotide exchange factor GrpE are involved, among others, in heat shocks and heavy metal cellular stress responses.
Results: Using phylogenomic approaches we have investigated the evolutionary history of the DnaJ-Fer protein and of interacting proteins DnaK, DnaJ and GrpE in Thaumarchaeota. These proteins have very complex histories, involving several inter-domain horizontal gene transfers (HGTs) to explain the contemporary distribution of these proteins in archaea. These transfers include one from Cyanobacteria to Viridiplantae and one from Viridiplantae to Thaumarchaeota for the DnaJ-Fer protein, as well as independent HGTs from Bacteria to mesophilic archaea for the DnaK/DnaJ/GrpE system, followed by HGTs among mesophilic and thermophilic archaea.
Conclusions: We highlight the chimerical origin of the set of proteins DnaK, DnaJ, GrpE and DnaJ-Fer in Thaumarchaeota and suggest that the HGT of these proteins has played an important role in the adaptation of several archaeal groups to mesophilic and thermophilic environments from hyperthermophilic ancestors. Finally, the evolutionary history of DnaJ-Fer provides information useful for the relative dating of the diversification of Archaeplastida and Thaumarchaeota.