Photosynthetic evolution in parasitic plants: insight from the chloroplast genome

Authors

  • Ralph A. Bungard

    Corresponding author
    1. School of Biological Science and New Zealand Institute of Gene Ecology, University of Canterbury, Private Bag 4800, Christchurch 8020, New Zealand
    • School of Biological Science and New Zealand Institute of Gene Ecology, University of Canterbury, Private Bag 4800, Christchurch 8020, New Zealand.
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Abstract

Despite the enormous diversity in plant form, structure and growth environment across the seed-bearing plants (angiosperms and gymnosperms), the chloroplast genome has, with few exceptions, remained remarkably conserved. This conservation suggests the existence of universal evolutionary selection pressures associated with photosynthesis—the primary function of chloroplasts. The stark exceptions to this conservation occur in parasitic angiosperms, which have escaped the dominant model by evolving the capacity to obtain some or all of their carbon (and nutrients) from their plant hosts. The consequence of this evolution to parasitism is a relaxation of the evolutionary constraints associated with the need to maintain photosynthetic function, the very function that drove early stages of the ancient symbiotic relationship that produced the contemporary chloroplast. Extreme examples of reductionism among parasitic angiosperms reveals major alterations in chloroplast function with the loss of photosynthetic capacity and, with that, massive alterations in chloroplast genome content. This review highlights emerging patterns in reported gene loss and gene retention in the chloroplast genomes of parasitic plants. Some gene losses appear to occur in the early stages of parasitic evolution, even before the loss of photosynthetic capacity, like the chlororespiratory (ndh) genes. This contrasts with unexpected gene retentions, like that of the rbcL gene responsible for photosynthetic carbon dioxide fixation, and belies current understanding of gene function. The review relates gene retention to current knowledge of protein function and gene processing that has implications to broader aspects of genome conservation in organelles. BioEssays 26:235–247, 2004. Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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