More than 1.5 billion years ago, a momentous thing happened: Two small, primitive cells became one. Perhaps more than any event — barring the origin of life itself — this merger radically changed the course of evolution on our planet.
One cell ended up inside the other and evolved into a structure that schoolkids learn to refer to as the “powerhouse of the cell”: the mitochondrion. This new structure provided a tremendous energetic advantage to its host — a precondition for the later evolution of complex, multicellular life.
But that’s only part of the story. The mitochondrion is not the only important structure within complex, eukaryotic cells. There’s the membrane-bound nucleus, safekeeper of the genome. There’s a whole system of internal membranes: the endoplasmic reticulum, the Golgi apparatus, lysosomes, peroxisomes and vacuoles — essential for making, transporting and recycling proteins and other cargo in and around the cell.
Where did all these structures come from? With events lost in the deep past and few traces to serve as evolutionary clues, it’s a very tough question to tackle. Researchers have proposed various hypotheses, but it is only recently, with some new tools and techniques, that cell biologists have been able to investigate the beginnings of this intricate architecture and shed some light on its possible origins. [Continue reading…]