Gregarine single-cell transcriptomics reveals differential mitochondrial remodeling and adaptation in apicomplexans

BMC Biol. 2021 Apr 16;19(1):77. doi: 10.1186/s12915-021-01007-2.


Background: Apicomplexa is a diverse phylum comprising unicellular endobiotic animal parasites and contains some of the most well-studied microbial eukaryotes including the devastating human pathogens Plasmodium falciparum and Cryptosporidium hominis. In contrast, data on the invertebrate-infecting gregarines remains sparse and their evolutionary relationship to other apicomplexans remains obscure. Most apicomplexans retain a highly modified plastid, while their mitochondria remain metabolically conserved. Cryptosporidium spp. inhabit an anaerobic host-gut environment and represent the known exception, having completely lost their plastid while retaining an extremely reduced mitochondrion that has lost its genome. Recent advances in single-cell sequencing have enabled the first broad genome-scale explorations of gregarines, providing evidence of differential plastid retention throughout the group. However, little is known about the retention and metabolic capacity of gregarine mitochondria.

Results: Here, we sequenced transcriptomes from five species of gregarines isolated from cockroaches. We combined these data with those from other apicomplexans, performed detailed phylogenomic analyses, and characterized their mitochondrial metabolism. Our results support the placement of Cryptosporidium as the earliest diverging lineage of apicomplexans, which impacts our interpretation of evolutionary events within the phylum. By mapping in silico predictions of core mitochondrial pathways onto our phylogeny, we identified convergently reduced mitochondria. These data show that the electron transport chain has been independently lost three times across the phylum, twice within gregarines.

Conclusions: Apicomplexan lineages show variable functional restructuring of mitochondrial metabolism that appears to have been driven by adaptations to parasitism and anaerobiosis. Our findings indicate that apicomplexans are rife with convergent adaptations, with shared features including morphology, energy metabolism, and intracellularity.

Keywords: Anaerobic metabolism; Apicomplexa; Eugregarines; Evolution; Mitochondria; Mitosome; Parasitism; Phylogenomics.