Evolution of the protists and protistan parasites from the perspective of molecular systematics

Int J Parasitol. 1998 Jan;28(1):11-20. doi: 10.1016/s0020-7519(97)00181-1.


Unlike prokaryotes, the Protista are rich in morphological and ultrastructure information. Their amazing phenotypic diversity permits assignment of many protists to cohesive phyletic assemblages but sometimes blurs relationships between major lineages. With the advent of molecular techniques, it became possible to test evolutionary hypotheses that were originally formulated according to shared phenotypic traits. More than any other gene family, studies of rRNAs changed our understanding of protist evolution. Stramenopiles (oomycetes, chrysophytes, phaeophytes, synurophytes, diatoms, xanthophytes, bicosoecids, slime nets) and alveolates (dinoflagellates, apicomplexans, ciliates) are two novel, complex evolutionary assemblages which diverged nearly simultaneously with animals, fungi, plants, rhodophytes, haptophytes and a myriad of independent amoeboid lineages. Their separation may have occurred one billion years ago and collectively these lineages make up the "crown" of the eukaryotic tree. Deeper branches in the eukaryotic tree show 16S-like rRNA sequence variation that is much greater than that observed within the Archaea and the Bacteria. A progression of independent protist branches, some as ancient as the divergence between the two prokaryotic domains, preceded the sudden radiation of "crown" groups. Trichomonads, diplomonads and Microsporidia are basal to all other eukaryotes included in rRNA studies. Together with pelobionts, oxymonads, retortamonads and hypermastigids, these amitochondriate taxa comprise the Archaezoa. This skeletal phylogeny suggested that early branching eukaryotes lacked mitochondria, peroxisomes and typical stacked Golgi dictyosomes. However, recent studies of heat shock proteins indicate that the first eukaryotes may have had mitochondria. When evaluated in terms of evolution of ultrastructure, lifestyles and other phenotypic traits, the rRNA phylogenies provide the most consistent of molecular trees. They permit identification of the phylogenetic affinity of many parasitic groups as well as a means to integrate molecular and cell biological information from diverse eukaryotes. We must place greater emphasis upon improved phylogenetic inference techniques and investigations of genomic diversity in protists.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Archaea / classification
  • Archaea / genetics
  • Bacteria / classification
  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Eukaryota / classification*
  • Eukaryota / genetics*
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Fungi / classification
  • Fungi / genetics
  • Phylogeny
  • Plants / classification
  • Plants / genetics
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S


  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S