If eukaryotes arose through a merger between archaea and bacteria, what did the first true eukaryotic cell look like? A major step toward an answer came with the discovery of Lokiarchaeum, an archaeon whose genome encodes small GTPases related to those used by eukaryotes to regulate membrane traffic. Although ‘Loki’ cells have yet to be seen, their existence has prompted the suggestion that the archaeal ancestor of eukaryotes engulfed the future mitochondrion by phagocytosis. We propose instead that the archaeal ancestor was a relatively simple cell, and that eukaryotic cellular organization arose as the result of a gradual transfer of bacterial genes and membranes driven by an ever-closer symbiotic partnership between a bacterium and an archaeon.
Eukaryotes are thought to be a product of symbiosis between archaea and bacteria. The recently discovered Lokiarchaeum (‘Loki’) encodes more Eukaryotic Signature Proteins (ESPs) than any other archaeon, making it the closest living relative to the putative ancestor of eukaryotes.
Lokiarchaeum is the first prokaryote found to encode small GTPases, gelsolin, BAR domains, and longin domains, leading many to suggest that it might be compartmentalized and be capable of membrane trafficking.
Many models for the evolution of eukaryotes invoke an archaeal ancestor that is capable of phagocytosis to explain the entry of the future mitochondrion into the host cell.
Understanding the cell biology of Lokiarchaeum will be key to understanding the morphological transitions that characterized the evolution of eukaryotic cellular architecture, but Loki has not yet been cultured or seen.