Background: Mitochondria are ubiquitous membranous organelles of eukaryotic cells that evolved from an alpha-proteobacterial endosymbiont and possess a small genome that encompasses from 3 to 106 genes. Accumulation of thousands of mitochondrial genomes from diverse groups of eukaryotes provides an opportunity for a comprehensive reconstruction of the evolution of the mitochondrial gene repertoire.
Results: Clusters of orthologous mitochondrial protein-coding genes (MitoCOGs) were constructed from all available mitochondrial genomes and complemented with nuclear orthologs of mitochondrial genes. With minimal exceptions, the mitochondrial gene complements of eukaryotes are subsets of the superset of 66 genes found in jakobids. Reconstruction of the evolution of mitochondrial genomes indicates that the mitochondrial gene set of the last common ancestor of the extant eukaryotes was slightly larger than that of jakobids. This superset of mitochondrial genes likely represents an intermediate stage following the loss and transfer to the nucleus of most of the endosymbiont genes early in eukaryote evolution. Subsequent evolution in different lineages involved largely parallel transfer of ancestral endosymbiont genes to the nuclear genome. The intron density in nuclear orthologs of mitochondrial genes typically is nearly the same as in the rest of the genes in the respective genomes. However, in land plants, the intron density in nuclear orthologs of mitochondrial genes is almost 1.5-fold lower than the genomic mean, suggestive of ongoing transfer of functional genes from mitochondria to the nucleus.
Conclusions: The MitoCOGs are expected to become an important resource for the study of mitochondrial evolution. The nearly complete superset of mitochondrial genes in jakobids likely represents an intermediate stage in the evolution of eukaryotes after the initial, extensive loss and transfer of the endosymbiont genes. In addition, the bacterial multi-subunit RNA polymerase that is encoded in the jakobid mitochondrial genomes was replaced by a single-subunit phage-type RNA polymerase in the rest of the eukaryotes. These results are best compatible with the rooting of the eukaryotic tree between jakobids and the rest of the eukaryotes. The land plants are the only eukaryotic branch in which the gene transfer from the mitochondrial to the nuclear genome appears to be an active, ongoing process.