A Molecular Timeline for the Origin of Photosynthetic Eukaryotes

Hwan Su Yoon, Jeremiah D. Hackett, Claudia Ciniglia, Gabriele Pinto, Debashish Bhattacharya

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

726 Scopus citations


The appearance of photosynthetic eukaryotes (algae and plants) dramatically altered the Earth's ecosystem, making possible all vertebrate life on land, including humans. Dating algal origin is, however, frustrated by a meager fossil record. We generated a plastid multi-gene phylogeny with Bayesian inference and then used maximum likelihood molecular clock methods to estimate algal divergence times. The plastid tree was used as a surrogate for algal host evolution because of recent phylogenetic evidence supporting the vertical ancestry of the plastid in the red, green, and glaucophyte algae. Nodes in the plastid tree were constrained with six reliable fossil dates and a maximum age of 3,500 MYA based on the earliest known eubacterial fossil. Our analyses support an ancient (late Paleoproterozoic) origin of photosynthetic eukaryotes with the primary endosymbiosis that gave rise to the first alga having occurred after the split of the Plantae (i.e., red, green, and glaucophyte algae plus land plants) from the opisthokonts sometime before 1,558 MYA. The split of the red and green algae is calculated to have occurred about 1,500 MYA, and the putative single red algal secondary endosymbiosis that gave rise to the plastid in the cryptophyte, haptophyte, and stramenopile algae (chromists) occurred about 1,300 MYA. These dates, which are consistent with fossil evidence for putative marine algae (i.e., acritarchs) from the early Mesoproterozoic (1,500 MYA) and with a major eukaryotic diversification in the very late Mesoproterozoic and Neoproterozoic, provide a molecular timeline for understanding algal evolution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)809-818
Number of pages10
JournalMolecular biology and evolution
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2004


  • Algal origin
  • Divergence time estimates
  • Fossil record
  • Molecular clock
  • Plastid

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics


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