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Biology LibreTexts

20.2B: Building Phylogenetic Trees

  • Page ID
    13532
  • A phylogenetic tree sorts organisms into clades or groups of organisms that descended from a single ancestor using maximum parsimony.

    Learning Objectives

    • Describe the cladistics as a method used to create phylogenetic trees

    Key Points

    • Phylogenetic trees sort organisms into clades: groups of organisms that descended from a single ancestor.
    • Organisms of a single clade are called a monophyletic group.
    • Scientists use the phrase “descent with modification” because genetic changes occur even though related organisms have many of the same characteristics and genetic codes.
    • A characteristic is considered a shared-ancestral character if it is found in the ancestor of a group and all of the organisms in the taxon or clade have that trait.
    • If only some of the organisms have a certain trait, it is called a shared- derived character because this trait derived at some point, but does not include all of the ancestors in the clade.
    • Scientists often use a concept called maximum parsimony, which means that events occurred in the simplest, most obvious way, to aid in the tremendous task of describing phylogenies accurately.

    Key Terms

    • monophyletic: of, pertaining to, or affecting a single phylum (or other taxon) of organisms
    • derived: of, or pertaining to, conditions unique to the descendant species of a clade, and not found in earlier ancestral species
    • clades: groups of organisms that descended from a single ancestor
    • ancestral: of, pertaining to, derived from, or possessed by, an ancestor or ancestors; as, an ancestral estate
    • maximum parsimony: the preferred phylogenetic tree is the tree that requires the least evolutionary change to explain some observed data

    Building Phylogenetic Trees

    After the homologous and analogous traits are sorted, scientists often organize the homologous traits using a system called cladistics. This system sorts organisms into clades: groups of organisms that descended from a single ancestor. For example, all of the organisms in the orange region evolved from a single ancestor that had amniotic eggs. Consequently, all of these organisms also have amniotic eggs and make a single clade, also called a monophyletic group. Clades must include all of the descendants from a branch point.

    image

    Common ancestors: Lizards, rabbits, and humans all descend from a common ancestor that had an amniotic egg. Thus, lizards, rabbits, and humans all belong to the clade Amniota. Vertebrata is a larger clade that also includes fish and lamprey.

    Clades can vary in size depending on which branch point is being referenced. The important factor is that all of the organisms in the clade or monophyletic group stem from a single point on the tree. This can be remembered because monophyletic breaks down into “mono,” meaning one, and “phyletic,” meaning evolutionary relationship. Notice in the various examples of clades how each clade comes from a single point, whereas the non-clade groups show branches that do not share a single point.

    Shared Characteristics

    Organisms evolve from common ancestors and then diversify. Scientists use the phrase “descent with modification” because even though related organisms have many of the same characteristics and genetic codes, changes occur. This pattern repeats as one goes through the phylogenetic tree of life:

    1. A change in the genetic makeup of an organism leads to a new trait which becomes prevalent in the group.
    2. Many organisms descend from this point and have this trait.
    3. New variations continue to arise: some are adaptive and persist, leading to new traits.
    4. With new traits, a new branch point is determined (go back to step 1 and repeat).

    image

    Examples of clades: All the organisms within a clade stem from a single point on the tree. A clade may contain multiple groups, as in the case of animals, fungi, and plants, or a single group, as in the case of flagellates. Groups that diverge at a different branch point, or that do not include all groups in a single branch point, are not considered clades.

    If a characteristic is found in the ancestor of a group, it is considered a shared-ancestral character because all of the organisms in the taxon or clade have that trait. Now, consider the amniotic egg characteristic in the same figure. Only some of the organisms have this trait; to those that do, it is called a shared-derived character because this trait derived at some point, but does not include all of the ancestors in the tree. The tricky aspect to shared-ancestral and shared-derived characters is the fact that these terms are relative. The same trait can be considered one or the other depending on the particular diagram being used. These terms help scientists distinguish between clades in the building of phylogenetic trees.

    Choosing the Right Relationships

    Imagine being the person responsible for organizing all of the items in a department store properly; an overwhelming task. Organizing the evolutionary relationships of all life on earth proves much more difficult: scientists must span enormous blocks of time and work with information from long-extinct organisms. Trying to decipher the proper connections, especially given the presence of homologies and analogies, makes the task of building an accurate tree of life extraordinarily difficult. Add to that the advancement of DNA technology, which now provides large quantities of genetic sequences to be used and analyzed. Taxonomy is a subjective discipline: many organisms have more than one connection to each other, so each taxonomist will decide the order of connections.

    To aid in the tremendous task of describing phylogenies accurately, scientists often use a concept called maximum parsimony, which means that events occurred in the simplest, most obvious way. For example, if a group of people entered a forest preserve to go hiking, based on the principle of maximum parsimony, one could predict that most of the people would hike on established trails rather than forge new ones. For scientists deciphering evolutionary pathways, the same idea is used: the pathway of evolution probably includes the fewest major events that coincide with the evidence at hand. Starting with all of the homologous traits in a group of organisms, scientists look for the most obvious and simple order of evolutionary events that led to the occurrence of those traits.

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