Stanford, CA -- The major difference between plant and animal cells is the photosynthetic process, which converts light energy into chemical energy. When light isn't available, energy is generated by breaking down carbohydrates and sugars, just as it is in animal and some bacterial cells. Two cellular organelles are responsible for these two processes: the chloroplasts for photosynthesis and the mitochondria for sugar breakdown. New research from Carnegie's Eva Nowack and Arthur Grossman has opened a window into the early stages of chloroplast evolution. Their work is published online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the week of February 27-March 2.
It is widely accepted that chloroplasts originated from photosynthetic, single-celled bacteria called cyanobacteria, which were engulfed by a more complex, non-photosynthetic cell more than 1.5 billion years ago. While the relationship between the two organisms was originally symbiotic, over evolutionary time the cyanobacterium transferred most of its genetic information to the nucleus of the host organism, transforming the original cyanobacterium into a chloroplast that is no longer able to survive without its host.
A similar process resulted in the creation of mitochondria.
To sustain the function of the organelle, proteins encoded by the transferred genes are synthesized in the cytoplasm, or cell's interior, and then imported back into the organelle. In most systems that have been studied, the transport of proteins into the chloroplast occurs through a multi-protein import complex that enables the proteins to pass through the envelope membranes that surround the chloroplast.
Clearly the events that gave rise to chloroplasts and mitochondria changed the world forever. But it is difficult to research the process by which this happened because it took place so long ago. One strategy used to elucidate the way in which this process evolved has relied
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