A new tree of life allows a closer look at the origin of species
A global evolutionary map reveals new insights into our last common ancestor
In 1870 the German scientist Ernst Haeckel mapped the evolutionary relationships of plants and animals in the first ’tree of life’. Since then scientists have continuously redrawn and expanded the tree adding microorganisms and using modern molecular data, yet, many parts of the tree have remained unclear. Now a group at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg has developed a computational method that resolves many of the open questions and produced what is likely the most accurate tree ever. The study, which appears in the current issue of the journal Science, gives some intriguing insights into the origins of bacteria and the last common universal ancestor of all life on earth today.
"DNA sequences of complete genomes provide us with a direct record of evolution", says Peer Bork, Associate Coordinator for Structural and Computational Biology at EMBL, whose group carried out the project. "For a long time the overwhelming amount of data (the human genome alone contains enough information to fill 200 telephone books) has made it very difficult to pinpoint the information needed for a high-resolution map of evolution. But our study shows how this challenge can be tackled by combining different computational methods in an automated process."
Bork’s lab specialises in the computational analysis of genomes, and recently they applied this expertise to the tree of life. Since all organisms descend from the same ancestor, they share some common genes. Francesca Ciccarelli and Tobias Doerks of Bork’s group managed to identify 31 genes with clear relatives in 191 organisms, ranging from bacteria to humans, to reconstruct their relationships.
"Even using such genes, you might get the wrong answer," says Ciccarelli. "Organisms inherit most genes from their parents, but over the course of evolution, a few have been obtained when organisms swapped genes with their neighbours in a process called horizontal gene transfer (HGT). Obviously, the latter class of genes does not tell you anything about your ancestors. The trick was to identify and exclude them from the analysis."
"This procedure drastically reduced the ’noise’ in the data, making it possible to identify as yet unknown details of early evolution," says Tobias Doerks. "For example, we now know that the first bacterium was probably a type called gram-positive and likely lived at high temperatures – suggesting that all life arose in hot environments."
The improved tree has also shed light on other research carried out by the group. Bork and colleagues are participating in projects that collect genetic material of unknown species en masse from environments such as farm soil and ocean floor. "With the new high-resolution tree in hand, it is now possible to classify genetic material from this unexplored microbial world and further our understanding of life on the planet."
Anna-Lynn Wegener | EurekAlert!
The most recent press releases about innovation >>>
Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:
Physicists at the University of Bonn have managed to create optical hollows and more complex patterns into which the light of a Bose-Einstein condensate flows. The creation of such highly low-loss structures for light is a prerequisite for complex light circuits, such as for quantum information processing for a new generation of computers. The researchers are now presenting their results in the journal Nature Photonics.
Light particles (photons) occur as tiny, indivisible portions. Many thousands of these light portions can be merged to form a single super-photon if they are...
For the first time, scientists have shown that circular RNA is linked to brain function. When a RNA molecule called Cdr1as was deleted from the genome of mice, the animals had problems filtering out unnecessary information – like patients suffering from neuropsychiatric disorders.
While hundreds of circular RNAs (circRNAs) are abundant in mammalian brains, one big question has remained unanswered: What are they actually good for? In the...
An experimental small satellite has successfully collected and delivered data on a key measurement for predicting changes in Earth's climate.
The Radiometer Assessment using Vertically Aligned Nanotubes (RAVAN) CubeSat was launched into low-Earth orbit on Nov. 11, 2016, in order to test new...
A study led by scientists of the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter (MPSD) at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg presents evidence of the coexistence of superconductivity and “charge-density-waves” in compounds of the poorly-studied family of bismuthates. This observation opens up new perspectives for a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of high-temperature superconductivity, a topic which is at the core of condensed matter research since more than 30 years. The paper by Nicoletti et al has been published in the PNAS.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, superconductivity had been observed in some metals at temperatures only a few degrees above the absolute zero (minus...
Researchers from the University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, the Italian Space Agency (ASI), and the Instituto Geofisico--Escuela Politecnica Nacional (IGEPN) of Ecuador, showed an increasing volcanic danger on Cotopaxi in Ecuador using a powerful technique known as Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR).
The Andes region in which Cotopaxi volcano is located is known to contain some of the world's most serious volcanic hazard. A mid- to large-size eruption has...