Chloroplasts are one type of plastid, a group of related organelles in plant cells that are involved in the storage of starches, fats, proteins, and pigments. Chloroplasts contain the green pigment chlorophyll and play a role in photosynthesis. Genetic and morphological studies suggest that plastids evolved from the endosymbiosis of an ancestral cell that engulfed a photosynthetic cyanobacterium. Plastids are similar in size and shape to cyanobacteria and are enveloped by two or more membranes, corresponding to the inner and outer membranes of cyanobacteria. Like mitochondria, plastids also contain circular genomes and divide by a process reminiscent of prokaryotic cell division. The chloroplasts of red and green algae exhibit DNA sequences that are closely related to photosynthetic cyanobacteria, suggesting that red and green algae are direct descendants of this endosymbiotic event.
Mitochondria likely evolved before plastids because all eukaryotes have either functional mitochondria or mitochondria-like organelles. In contrast, plastids are only found in a subset of eukaryotes, such as terrestrial plants and algae. One hypothesis of the evolutionary steps leading to the first eukaryote is summarized in Figure 13.12.
The exact steps leading to the first eukaryotic cell can only be hypothesized, and some controversy exists regarding which events actually took place and in what order. Spirochete bacteria have been hypothesized to have given rise to microtubules, and a flagellated prokaryote may have contributed the raw materials for eukaryotic flagella and cilia. Other scientists suggest that membrane proliferation and compartmentalization, not endosymbiotic events, led to the development of mitochondria and plastids. However, the vast majority of studies support the endosymbiotic hypothesis of eukaryotic evolution.
The early eukaryotes were unicellular like most protists are today, but as eukaryotes became more complex, the evolution of multicellularity allowed cells to remain small while still exhibiting specialized functions. The ancestors of today’s multicellular eukaryotes are thought to have evolved about 1.5 billion years ago.