Symbiosis between methanogenic archaea and delta-proteobacteria as the origin of eukaryotes: the syntrophic hypothesis

J Mol Evol. 1998 Nov;47(5):517-30. doi: 10.1007/pl00006408.


We present a novel hypothesis for the origin of the eukaryotic cell, or eukaryogenesis, based on a metabolic symbiosis (syntrophy) between a methanogenic archaeon (methanobacterial-like) and a delta-proteobacterium (an ancestral sulfate-reducing myxobacterium). This syntrophic symbiosis was originally mediated by interspecies H2 transfer in anaerobic, possibly moderately thermophilic, environments. During eukaryogenesis, progressive cellular and genomic cointegration of both types of prokaryotic partners occurred. Initially, the establishment of permanent consortia, accompanied by extensive membrane development and close cell-cell interactions, led to a highly evolved symbiotic structure already endowed with some primitive eukaryotic features, such as a complex membrane system defining a protonuclear space (corresponding to the archaeal cytoplasm), and a protoplasmic region (derived from fusion of the surrounding bacterial cells). Simultaneously, bacterial-to-archaeal preferential gene transfer and eventual replacement took place. Bacterial genome extinction was thus accomplished by gradual transfer to the archaeal host, where genes adapted to a new genetic environment. Emerging eukaryotes would have inherited archaeal genome organization and dynamics and, consequently, most DNA-processing information systems. Conversely, primordial genes for social and developmental behavior would have been provided by the ancient myxobacterial symbiont. Metabolism would have been issued mainly from the versatile bacterial organotrophy, and progressively, methanogenesis was lost.