23.1 Eukaryotic Origins
The oldest fossil evidence of eukaryotes is about 2 billion years old. Fossils older than this all appear to be prokaryotes. It is probable that today’s eukaryotes are descended from an ancestor that had a prokaryotic organization. The last common ancestor of today’s Eukarya had several characteristics, including cells with nuclei and an endomembrane system (which includes the nuclear envelope). Its chromosomes were linear and contained DNA associated with histones. The nuclear genome seems to be descended from an archaean ancestor. This ancestor would have had a cytoskeleton and divided its chromosomes mitotically.
The ancestral cytoskeletal system included the ability to make cilia/flagella during at least part of its life cycle. It was aerobic because it had mitochondria derived from an aerobic alpha-proteobacterium that lived inside a host cell. Whether this host had a nucleus at the time of the initial symbiosis remains unknown. The last common ancestor may have had a cell wall for at least part of its life cycle, but more data are needed to confirm this hypothesis. Today’s eukaryotes are very diverse in their shapes, organization, life cycles, and number of cells per individual.
23.2 Characteristics of Protists
Protists are extremely diverse in terms of their biological and ecological characteristics, partly because they are an artificial assemblage of phylogenetically unrelated groups. Protists display highly varied cell structures, several types of reproductive strategies, virtually every possible type of nutrition, and varied habitats. Most single-celled protists are motile, but these organisms use diverse structures for transportation.
23.3 Groups of Protists
The process of classifying protists into meaningful groups is ongoing, but genetic data in the past 20 years have clarified many relationships that were previously unclear or mistaken. The majority view at present is to order all eukaryotes into six supergroups: Archaeplastida, Amoebozoa, Opisthokonta, Rhizaria, Chromalveolata, and Excavata. The goal of this classification scheme is to create clusters of species that all are derived from a common ancestor. At present, the monophyly of some of the supergroups are better supported by genetic data than others. Although tremendous variation exists within the supergroups, commonalities at the morphological, physiological, and ecological levels can be identified.
23.4 Ecology of Protists
Protists function at several levels of the ecological food web: as primary producers, as direct food sources, and as decomposers. In addition, many protists are parasites of plants and animals and can cause deadly human diseases or destroy valuable crops.