The ancestors of mitochondria, or proto-mitochondria, played a crucial role in the evolution of eukaryotic cells and derived from symbiotic α-proteobacteria which merged with other microorganisms - the basis of the widely accepted endosymbiotic theory. However, the identity and relatives of proto-mitochondria remain elusive. Here we show that methylotrophic α-proteobacteria could be the closest living models for mitochondrial ancestors. We reached this conclusion after reconstructing the possible evolutionary pathways of the bioenergy systems of proto-mitochondria with a genomic survey of extant α-proteobacteria. Results obtained with complementary molecular and genetic analyses of diverse bioenergetic proteins converge in indicating the pathway stemming from methylotrophic bacteria as the most probable route of mitochondrial evolution. Contrary to other α-proteobacteria, methylotrophs show transition forms for the bioenergetic systems analysed. Our approach of focusing on these bioenergetic systems overcomes the phylogenetic impasse that has previously complicated the search for mitochondrial ancestors. Moreover, our results provide a new perspective for experimentally re-evolving mitochondria from extant bacteria and in the future produce synthetic mitochondria. © 2014 Degli Esposti et al.
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