Earth and Planetary Science
EPS Near-Surface Geochemistry and Geobiology

Berkeley Scientists Illuminate the Origin of Eukaryotic Cellular Complexity

Friday, February 17, 2017

Karthik Anantharaman and Jillian Banfield are co-authors of “Asgard archaea illuminate the origin of eukaryotic cellular complexity.” The article came out on 11 January 2017 in Nature.

The origin and cellular complexity of eukaryotes represent a major enigma in biology. Current data support scenarios in which an archaeal host cell and an alphaproteobacterial (mitochondrial) endosymbiont merged together, resulting in the first eukaryotic cell. The host cell is related to Lokiarchaeota, an archaeal phylum with many eukaryotic features. The emergence of the structural complexity that characterizes eukaryotic cells remains unclear. Here the authors describe the ‘Asgard’ superphylum, a group of uncultivated archaea that, as well as Lokiarchaeota, includes Thor-, Odin- and Heimdallarchaeota. Asgard archaea affiliate with eukaryotes in phylogenomic analyses, and their genomes are enriched for proteins formerly considered specific to eukaryotes. Notably, thorarchaeal genomes encode several homologues of eukaryotic membrane-trafficking machinery components, including Sec23/24 and TRAPP domains. Furthermore, the researchers identify thorarchaeal proteins with similar features to eukaryotic coat proteins involved in vesicle biogenesis. Their results expand the known repertoire of ‘eukaryote-specific’ proteins in Archaea, indicating that the archaeal host cell already contained many key components that govern eukaryotic cellular complexity.

Karthik Anantharaman is a postdoctoral researcher in the Earth and Planetary Science Department. Jillian Banfield is a geomicrobiologist and biogeochemist whose work focuses on the fundamental relationship between microorganisms and their chemical environments. She is jointly appointed in the Berkeley Earth & Planetary Science and Environmental Science, Policy, and Management Departments and is a recipient of the MacArthur genius grant.

For the full-length article please click here.