Mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathways are central cellular signalling mechanisms in all eukaryotes. They are key regulators of the cell cycle and stress responses, yet evolution of MAPK families took markedly different paths in the animal and plant kingdoms. Instead of the characteristic divergence of MAPK types in animals, in plants an expanded network of ERK-like MAPKs has emerged. To gain insight into the early evolution of the plant MAPK family we identified and analysed MAPKs in 13 representative species across green algae, a large and diverse early-diverging lineage within the plant kingdom. Our results reveal that the plant MAPK gene family emerged from three types of progenitor kinases, which are ubiquitously present in algae, implying their formation in an early ancestor. Low number of MAPKs is characteristic across algae, the few losses or duplications are associated with genome complexity rather than habitat ecology, despite the importance of MAPKs in environmental signalling in flowering plants. ERK-type MAPKs are associated with cell cycle regulation in opisthokont models, yet in plants their stress-signalling function is more prevalent. Unicellular microalgae offer an excellent experimental system to study the cell cycle, and MAPK gene expression profiles show CDKB-like peaks around S/M phase in synchronised Chlamydomonas reinhardtii cultures, suggesting their participation in cell cycle regulation, in line with the notion that the ancestral eukaryotic MAPK was a cell cycle regulator ERK-like kinase. Our work also highlights the scarcity of signalling knowledge in microalgae, in spite of their enormous ecological impact and emerging economic importance.
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