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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009 Aug 12;364(1527):2187-96. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2009.0040.

Getting a better picture of microbial evolution en route to a network of genomes.

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  • 1Institute of Botany, University of Düsseldorf, Düsseldorf, Germany.


Most current thinking about evolution is couched in the concept of trees. The notion of a tree with recursively bifurcating branches representing recurrent divergence events is a plausible metaphor to describe the evolution of multicellular organisms like vertebrates or land plants. But if we try to force the tree metaphor onto the whole of the evolutionary process, things go badly awry, because the more closely we inspect microbial genomes through the looking glass of gene and genome sequence comparisons, the smaller the amount of the data that fits the concept of a bifurcating tree becomes. That is mainly because among microbes, endosymbiosis and lateral gene transfer are important, two mechanisms of natural variation that differ from the kind of natural variation that Darwin had in mind. For such reasons, when it comes to discussing the relationships among all living things, that is, including the microbes and all of their genes rather than just one or a select few, many biologists are now beginning to talk about networks rather than trees in the context of evolutionary relationships among microbial chromosomes. But talk is not enough. If we were to actually construct networks instead of trees to describe the evolutionary process, what would they look like? Here we consider endosymbiosis and an example of a network of genomes involving 181 sequenced prokaryotes and how that squares off with some ideas about early cell evolution.

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