Single-celled parasites like Entamoeba, Trypanosoma, Phytophthora and Plasmodium wreak untold havoc on human habitat and health. Understanding the position of the various protistan pathogens in the larger context of eukaryotic diversity informs our study of how these parasites operate on a cellular level, as well as how they have evolved. Here, we review the literature that has brought our understanding of eukaryotic relationships from an idea of parasites as primitive cells to a crystallized view of diversity that encompasses 6 major divisions, or supergroups, of eukaryotes. We provide an updated taxonomic scheme (for 2011), based on extensive genomic, ultrastructural and phylogenetic evidence, with three differing levels of taxonomic detail for ease of referencing and accessibility (see supplementary material at Cambridge Journals On-line). Two of the most pressing issues in cellular evolution, the root of the eukaryotic tree and the evolution of photosynthesis in complex algae, are also discussed along with ideas about what the new generation of genome sequencing technologies may contribute to the field of eukaryotic systematics. We hope that, armed with this user's guide, cell biologists and parasitologists will be encouraged about taking an increasingly evolutionary point of view in the battle against parasites representing real dangers to our livelihoods and lives.
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