Latest Tango in Halifax

I've known Yana Eglit for many years. She frequently posts comments on this blog but you won't recognize her name because she uses a pseudonym.1 Yana is a graduate student in the lab of Alastair Simpson at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. A few years ago she saw some strange organisms dancing in a Petri dish.2

The microorganisms belong to the group Hemimastigophora. Yana found them in a clump of dirt she picked up while hiking near Halifax. They named the species Hemimastix kukwesjijk. The group only contains a few other species.

Hemimastigophora is one of those protist groups that have been difficult to classify and difficult to place relative to other protists. It's traditionally been given the status of a phylum but its position in the eukaryotic tree was ambiguous.

The Simpson lab, in a collaboration with Andrew Roger's group, sequenced a number of genes (transcripts) from H. kukwesjijk and another species that they recently identified (Spirenema). The datasets contained samples of about 300 genes of each species. Trees constructed with this dataset place the Hemimastigophora near the base of the eukrayotic tree as a sister group to Diaphoretices. The work was published in a recent issue of Nature (Lax, Egrit, et al., 2018).

The details of eukaryotic taxonomy and the various subdivisions needn't concern us but the important take-home lesson is that there are a huge number of protists forming diverse groups that separated more than a billion years ago. The authors claim that Hemimastigophora deserves supra-kingdom status equivalent to the other supra-kingdoms shown in the figure (modified from Figure 4 of the paper).

The root of the eukaryotic tree is controversial. It could be at positions a, b, or c, shown in the figure. According to the authors, position a is the most favored these days. Regardless of where the root is actually placed, the new positioning of Hemimastigophora adds a lot of information to the deepest parts of the eukaryotic tree and brings us closer to identifying the most primitive features of the eukaryotic cell.

I wonder how many other strange species can be found in Canadian dirt?


Photo Credit: The photo of Yana Eglit at her microscope is from the Dalhousie University press office [Hidden in plain sight: Dal evolutionary biologists uncover a new branch on the Tree of Life]

1. Which she might accidentally reveal if she responds to this post!

2. The fact they were "dancing" gave me an excuse to use a corny title that refers to one of our favorite TV shows, "Last Tango in Halifax."

Lax, G., Eglit, Y., Eme, L., Bertrand, E. M., Roger, A. J., and Simpson, A. G. B. (2018) Hemimastigophora is a novel supra-kingdom-level lineage of eukaryotes. Nature. (in press) [doi: 10.1038/s41586-018-0708-8]

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