Chimeric models claim that two prokaryotic cells existed initially – an archaeon and a bacterium. These cells underwent a merging process either by a physical fusion or by endosymbiosis, thereby leading to the formation of a eukaryotic cell. Within these chimeric models, some studies further claim that mitochondria originated from a bacterial ancestor while others emphasize the role of endosymbiotic processes behind the origin of mitochondria.
Based on the process of mutualistic symbiosis, the hypotheses can be categorized as – the serial endosymbiotic theory (SET), the hydrogen hypothesis (mostly a process of symbiosis where hydrogen transfer takes place among different species), and the syntrophy hypothesis.
According to serial endosymbiotic theory, a union between a motile anaerobic bacterium (like Spirochaeta) and a thermoacidophilic crenarchaeon (like Thermoplasma which is sulfidogenic in nature) gave rise to the present day eukaryotes. This union established a motile organism capable of living in the already existing acidic and sulfurous waters. Oxygen is known to cause toxicity to organisms that lack the required metabolic machinery. Thus, the archaeon provided the bacterium with a highly beneficial reduced environment (sulfur and sulfate were reduced to sulfide). In microaerophilic conditions, oxygen was reduced to water thereby creating a mutual benefit platform. The bacterium on the other hand, contributed the necessary fermentation products and electron acceptors along with its motility feature to the archaeon thereby gaining a swimming motility for the organism. From a consortium of bacterial and archaeal DNA originated the nuclear genome of eukaryotic cells. Spirochetes gave rise to the motile features of eukaryotic cells. Endosymbiotic unifications of the ancestors of alpha-proteobacteria and cyanobacteria, led to the origin of mitochondria and plastids respectively. For example, Thiodendron has been known to have originated via an ectosymbiotic process based on a similar syntrophy of sulfur existing between the two types of bacteria – Desulphobacter and Spirochaeta. However, such an association based on motile symbiosis have never been observed practically. Also there is no evidence of archaeans and spirochetes adapting to intense acid-based environments.
In the hydrogen hypothesis, the symbiotic linkage of an anaerobic and autotrophic methanogenic archaeon (host) with an alpha-proteobacterium (the symbiont) gave rise to the eukaryotes. The host utilized hydrogen (H2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) to produce methane while the symbiont, capable of aerobic respiration, expelled H2 and CO2 as byproducts of anaerobic fermentation process. The host's methanogenic environment worked as a sink for H2, which resulted in heightened bacterial fermentation. Endosymbiotic gene transfer (EGT) acted as a catalyst for the host to acquire the symbionts' carbohydrate metabolism and turn heterotrophic in nature. Subsequently, the host's methane forming capability was lost. Thus, the origins of the heterotrophic organelle (symbiont) are identical to the origins of the eukaryotic lineage. In this hypothesis, the presence of H2 represents the selective force that forged eukaryotes out of prokaryotes.
The syntrophy hypothesis was developed in contrast to the hydrogen hypothesis and proposes the existence of two symbiotic events. According to this theory, eukaryogenesis (i.e. origin of eukaryotic cells) occurred based on metabolic symbiosis (syntrophy) between a methanogenic archaeon and a delta-proteobacterium. This syntrophic symbiosis was initially facilitated by H2 transfer between different species under anaerobic environments. In earlier stages, an alpha-proteobacterium became a member of this integration, and later developed into the mitochondrion. Gene transfer from a delta-proteobacterium to an archaeon led to the methanogenic archaeon developing into a nucleus. The archaeon constituted the genetic apparatus while the delta-proteobacterium contributed towards the cytoplasmic features. This theory incorporates two selective forces that were needed to be considered during the time of nucleus evolution – (a) presence of metabolic partitioning in order to avoid the harmful effects of the co-existence of anabolic and catabolic cellular pathways, and (b) prevention of abnormal biosynthesis of proteins that occur due to a vast spread of introns in the archaeal genes after acquiring the mitochondrion and the loss of methanogenesis.
Thus, the origin of eukaryotes by endosymbiotic processes has been broadly recognized and accepted so far. Mitochondria and plastids have been known to originate from a bacterial ancestor during parallel adaptation to anaerobiosis. However, there still remains a greater need in assessing the question of how much eukaryotic complexity is being originated via an implementation of these symbiogenetic theories.
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