Researchers have long theorized that the evolution of complex life forms began when one cell engulfed another and the two formed a single entity. In a new study “Engineering artificial photosynthetic life-forms through endosymbiosis” published in the journal Nature Communications, scientists reported that they have recapitulated this early event, called endosymbiosis, in yeast, and they foresee applications in synthetic biology.

“We have designed and engineered artificial, genetically tractable, photosynthetic endosymbiosis between photosynthetic cyanobacteria and budding yeasts,” said Angad Mehta, PhD, who led the research as professor of chemistry, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “And the engineered cyanobacteria perform chloroplast-like functions to support the growth of the yeast.”

These chimeras survived and also reproduced by budding under optimal photosynthetic conditions, the team reported. “They are able to propagate through at least 15 to 20 generations of growth,” Mehta pointed out.

“The evolutionary origin of the photosynthetic eukaryotes drastically altered the evolution of complex lifeforms and impacted global ecology. The endosymbiotic theory suggests that photosynthetic eukaryotes evolved due to endosymbiosis between non-photosynthetic eukaryotic host cells and photosynthetic cyanobacterial or algal endosymbionts. The photosynthetic endosymbionts, propagating within the cytoplasm of the host cells, evolved, and eventually transformed into chloroplasts. Despite the fundamental importance of this evolutionary event, we have minimal understanding of this remarkable evolutionary transformation,” write the investigators.

“Here, we design and engineer artificial, genetically tractable, photosynthetic endosymbiosis between photosynthetic cyanobacteria and budding yeasts. We engineer various mutants of model photosynthetic cyanobacteria as endosymbionts within yeast cells where, the engineered cyanobacteria perform bioenergetic functions to support the growth of yeast cells under defined photosynthetic conditions. We anticipate that these genetically tractable endosymbiotic platforms can be used for evolutionary studies, particularly related to organelle evolution, and also for synthetic biology applications.”

“We have essentially converted a nonphotosynthetic organism into a photosynthetic, chimeric life form,” said Mehta. “I believe that our new ability to build controlled, synthetic endosymbiotic chimera that can be genetically and metabolically manipulated, analytically studied and imaged, and computationally modeled and predicted will break the gridlock on our understanding of this remarkable evolutionary transformation.”

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