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According to the endosymbiont theory, mitochondria and chloroplasts originated as bacteria which were engulfed by larger cells. How many times is it estimated that this occurred in the past? Are there any examples of this process being observed directly?

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What do you mean "how many"? Do you mean how many time it should have happened before mitochondria became our endosymbionts? This question doesn't make any sense for me... – Alexander Galkin Dec 14 '11 at 22:23
I think this is a good question. Was it a unique or rare event, or an inevitable consequence of bacterial colonies cooperating? This is a fundamental issue in the development of multicellular life. – Poshpaws Dec 15 '11 at 10:34
up vote 16 down vote accepted

Well, it seems quite obvious that it was not a single I-eat-you-but-you-survived act but rather a convergence of endosymbiotic and host species into a greater and greater cooperation. Of course this leaves a question if there was one or more species of endosymbionts involved.

Mitochondria are a very primeval story forced by the oxygen catastrophe, so it is hard to say, although great majority of mitochondria seems to have a single origin.

Plastids are much more divergent, however it seems that they did originated from a single source, diverged into chloroplasts, cyanelles and rhodoplasts and were later mixed up by numerous acts of secondary and even tertiary endosymbiosis (plus a further evolution); this variety can be especially seen within Euglenas, and they are the main group investigated in this manner.

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what is the story of oxygen catastrophe which put some force upon mitochondria? – Vass Jan 25 '12 at 11:46
Long and speculative -- in short, aerobic bacteria are postulated to be ingested by larger, anaerobic ones which required something to reduce oxygen level inside its cells. I think you should ask a new question about it. – mbq Jan 25 '12 at 12:28
@Vass: you might look at… It is fairly tough going for a popular science book, but is about how life learned to live with and use oxygen – Ross Millikan May 7 '12 at 14:11

I think @mbq has covered the frequency question better than I can.

There is at least one modern example of this kind of new organelle formation. Aphids have a deep, intracellular endosymbiont Buchnera involving some genome transfer that has developed in the last 200 million years.

There are many articles about this topic (eg: Nature from 2000), and it was a little controversial 15 years ago. Now, it's largely accepted that this is a modern development of endosymbiosis, and a confirmation of the theory.

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that is really fascinating. Thanks for sharing! – Will Townes Dec 30 '11 at 18:37
@Thomas Ingalis, with the example of Buchnera, why does a intracellular endosymbiont involve genome transfer? What is that referring to exactly? – Vass Jan 25 '12 at 11:49
@Vass, to be correct, I should say functional redundancy. Nikoh et al published an analysis in 2010 screening a complete aphid genome for transfered genes. From the abstract: "Our results excluded the hypothesis that genome reduction in Buchnera has been accompanied by gene transfer to the host nuclear genome, but suggest that aphids utilize a set of duplicated genes acquired from other bacteria in the context of the Buchnera–aphid mutualism." This redundancy can be construed as a step to organelle formation. – Thomas Ingalls Jan 25 '12 at 15:29
thanks for adding a reference! – shigeta May 29 '12 at 22:16

It depends of what you call endosymbiosis. In the sense of mutualistic interaction between host cell and intracellular organism, it also include Rhizobium bacteria and Fabaceae plants, some Cnidaria and algea in their cells, and even some micorrhizal fungi that invade into plants cells. But parasitic interactions are also sometimes call symbiosis, as symbiosis means just “living together” and the balance between profits and costs for each partner are sometimes difficult to measure and even changes in time. So in this wider meaning even Trichinella worm that live in mammal cell is an endosymbiont and endosymbiosis is very common.

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There are evidences of secondary endosymbiosis i.e. organelle within an organelle. This is quite evident in Chromaveolates. Many unicellular Chromaveolates which had been classically referred to as unicellular Algae, have chloroplasts derived from other algae. This organelle in turn has a membrane bound suborganelle. For a quick reference you may see this article. Euglena and diatoms are some famous examples of this phenomenon.

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