In scientific terms, the evolutionary history and relationship of an organism or group of organisms is called phylogeny. Phylogeny describes the relationships of one organism to others—such as which organisms have diverged from a common ancestor, which species another is most closely related to, an evolutionary pathway, and so forth. Phylogenetic relationships provide information on shared ancestry but not necessarily on how organisms are similar or different.
Scientists use a tool called a phylogenetic tree to show the evolutionary pathways and connections among organisms. A phylogenetic tree is a diagram used to reflect evolutionary relationships among organisms or groups of organisms. Scientists consider phylogenetic trees to be a hypothesis of the evolutionary past since one cannot go back to confirm the proposed relationships. In other words, a “tree of life” can be constructed to illustrate when different organisms evolved and to show the relationships among different organisms (Figure 1).
A phylogenetic tree can be read like a map of evolutionary history. Many phylogenetic trees have a single lineage at the base representing a common ancestor. Scientists call such trees rooted, which means there is a single ancestral lineage (typically drawn from the bottom or left) to which all organisms represented in the diagram relate. Notice in the rooted phylogenetic tree that the three domains—Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya—diverge from a single point and branch off. The small branch that plants and animals (including humans) occupy in this diagram shows how recent and minuscule these groups are compared with other organisms. Unrooted trees don’t show a common ancestor but do show relationships among species.
In the past, biologists grouped living organisms into five kingdoms: animals, plants, fungi, protists, and bacteria. The organizational scheme was based mainly on physical features, as opposed to physiology, biochemistry, or molecular biology, all of which are used by modern systematics. The pioneering work of American microbiologist Carl Woese in the early 1970s has shown, however, that life on Earth has evolved along three lineages, now called domains—Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya. The first two are prokaryotic groups of microbes that lack membrane-enclosed nuclei and organelles. The third domain contains the eukaryotes and includes unicellular microorganisms together with the four original kingdoms (excluding bacteria). Woese defined Archaea as a new domain, and this resulted in a new taxonomic tree (Figure 1a). Many organisms belonging to the Archaea domain live under extreme conditions and are called extremophiles. To construct his tree, Woese used genetic relationships rather than similarities based on morphology (shape).
Woese’s tree was constructed from comparative sequencing of the genes that are universally distributed, present in every organism, and conserved (meaning that these genes have remained essentially unchanged throughout evolution). Woese’s approach was revolutionary because comparisons of physical features are insufficient to differentiate between the prokaryotes that appear fairly similar in spite of their tremendous biochemical diversity and genetic variability (Figure 2). The comparison of homologous DNA and RNA sequences provided Woese with a sensitive device that revealed the extensive variability of prokaryotes, and which justified the separation of the prokaryotes into two domains: bacteria and archaea.
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