A physiological perspective on the origin and evolution of photosynthesis

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Abstract

The origin and early evolution of photosynthesis are reviewed from an ecophysiological perspective. Earth's first ecosystems were chemotrophic, fueled by geological H2 at hydrothermal vents and, required flavin-based electron bifurcation to reduce ferredoxin for CO2 fixation. Chlorophyll-based phototrophy (chlorophototrophy) allowed autotrophs to generate reduced ferredoxin without electron bifurcation, providing them access to reductants other than H2. Because high-intensity, short-wavelength electromagnetic radiation at Earth's surface would have been damaging for the first chlorophyll (Chl)-containing cells, photosynthesis probably arose at hydrothermal vents under low-intensity, long-wavelength geothermal light. The first photochemically active pigments were possibly Zn-tetrapyrroles. We suggest that (i) after the evolution of red-absorbing Chl-like pigments, the first light-driven electron transport chains reduced ferredoxin via a type-1 reaction center (RC) progenitor with electrons from H2S; (ii) photothioautotrophy, first with one RC and then with two, was the bridge between H2-dependent chemolithoautotrophy and water-splitting photosynthesis; (iii) photothiotrophy sustained primary production in the photic zone of Archean oceans; (iv) photosynthesis arose in an anoxygenic cyanobacterial progenitor; (v) Chl a is the ancestral Chl; and (vi), anoxygenic chlorophototrophic lineages characterized so far acquired, by horizontal gene transfer, RCs and Chl biosynthesis with or without autotrophy, from the architects of chlorophototrophy—the cyanobacterial lineage.

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