Phylogenetic relationships of the ‘golden algae’ (haptophytes, heterokont chromophytes) and their plastids

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Abstract

The phylogenetic relationships of the “golden algae”, like all algae, were rarely addressed before the advent of electron microscopy because, based upon light microscopy, each group was so distinct that shared characters were not apparent. Electron microscopy has provided many new characters that have initiated phylogenetic discussions about the relationships among the “golden algae”. Consequently, new taxa have been described or old ones revised, many of which now include non-algal protists and fungi. The haptophytes were first placed in the class Chrysophyceae but ultrastructural data have provided evidence to classify them separately. Molecular studies have greatly enhanced phylogenetic analyses based on morphology and have led to the description of additional new taxa. We took available nucleotide sequence data for the nuclear-encoded SSU rRNA, fucoxanthin/ chlorophyll photosystem I/II, and actin genes and the plastid-encoded SSU rRNA, tufA, and rbcL genes and analysed these to evaluate phylogenetic relationships among the “golden algae”, viz., the Haptophyceae (= Prymnesiophyceae) and the heterokont chromophytes (also known as chromophytes, heterokont algae, autotrophic stramenopiles). Using molecular clock calculations, we estimated the average and earliest probable time of origin of these two groups and their plastids. The origin of the haptophyte host-cell lineages appears to be more ancient than the origin of its plastid, suggesting that an endosymbiotic origin of plastids occurred late in the evolutionary history of this group. The pigmented heterokonts (heterokont chromophytes) also arose later, following an endosymbiotic event that led to the transfer of photosynthetic capacity to their heterotrophic ancestors. Photosynthetic haptophytes and heterokont chromophytes both appear to have arisen at or shortly before the Permian-Triassic boundary. Our data support the hypothesis that the haptophyte and heterokont chromophyte plastids have independent origins (i.e., two separate secondary endosymbioses) even though their plastids are similar in structure and pigmentation. Present evidence is insufficient to evaluate conclusively the possible monophyletic relationship of the haptophyte and heterokont protist host cells, even though haptophytes lack tripartite flagellar hairs. The molecular data, albeit weak, consistently fail to present the heterokont chromophytes and haptophytes as monophyletic. Phylogenetic resolution among all classes of heterokont chromophytes remains elusive even though molecular evidence has established the phylogenetic alliance of some classes (e.g., Phaeophyceae and Xanthophyceae).