BACKGROUND: Microalgae, with the ability to mitigate CO(2) emission and produce carbohydrates and lipids, are considered one of the most promising resources for producing bioenergy. Recently, we discovered that autophagy plays a critical role in the metabolism of photosynthetic system and lipids production. So far, more than 30-autophagy related (ATG) genes in all subtypes of autophagy have been identified. However, compared with yeast and mammals, in silico and experimental research of autophagy pathways in microalgae remained limited and fragmentary. PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: In this article, we performed a genome-wide analysis of ATG genes in 7 microalgae species and explored their distributions, domain structures and evolution. Eighteen "core autophagy machinery" proteins, four mammalian-specific ATG proteins and more than 30 additional proteins (including "receptor-adaptor" complexes) in all subtypes of autophagy were analyzed. Data revealed that receptor proteins in cytoplasm-to-vacuole targeting and mitophagy seem to be absent in microalgae. However, most of the "core autophagy machinery" and mammalian-specific proteins are conserved among microalgae, except for the ATG9-cycling system in Chlamydomonas reinhardtii and the second ubiquitin-like protein conjugation complex in several algal species. The catalytic and binding residues in ATG3, ATG5, ATG7, ATG8, ATG10 and ATG12 are also conserved and the phylogenetic tree of ATG8 coincides well with the phylogenies. Chlorella contains the entire set of the core autophagy machinery. In addition, RT-PCR analysis verified that all crucial ATG genes tested are expressed during autophagy in both Chlorella and Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. Finally, we discovered that addition of 3-Methyladenine (a PI3K specific inhibitor) could suppress the formation of autophagic vacuoles in Chlorella. CONCLUSIONS: Taken together, Chlorella may represent a potential model organism to investigate autophagy pathways in photosynthetic eukaryotes. The study will not only promote understanding of the general features of autophagic pathways, but also benefit the production of Chlorella-derived biofuel with future commercial applications.
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