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Biol Direct. 2006 Jul 11;1:19.

Rooting the tree of life by transition analyses.

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Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3PS, UK.



Despite great advances in clarifying the family tree of life, it is still not agreed where its root is or what properties the most ancient cells possessed--the most difficult problems in phylogeny. Protein paralogue trees can theoretically place the root, but are contradictory because of tree-reconstruction artefacts or poor resolution; ribosome-related and DNA-handling enzymes suggested one between neomura (eukaryotes plus archaebacteria) and eubacteria, whereas metabolic enzymes often place it within eubacteria but in contradictory places. Palaeontology shows that eubacteria are much more ancient than eukaryotes, and, together with phylogenetic evidence that archaebacteria are sisters not ancestral to eukaryotes, implies that the root is not within the neomura. Transition analysis, involving comparative/developmental and selective arguments, can polarize major transitions and thereby systematically exclude the root from major clades possessing derived characters and thus locate it; previously the 20 shared neomuran characters were thus argued to be derived, but whether the root was within eubacteria or between them and archaebacteria remained controversial.


I analyze 13 major transitions within eubacteria, showing how they can all be congruently polarized. I infer the first fully resolved prokaryote tree, with a basal stem comprising the new infrakingdom Glidobacteria (Chlorobacteria, Hadobacteria, Cyanobacteria), which is entirely non-flagellate and probably ancestrally had gliding motility, and two derived branches (Gracilicutes and Unibacteria/Eurybacteria) that diverged immediately following the origin of flagella. Proteasome evolution shows that the universal root is outside a clade comprising neomura and Actinomycetales (proteates), and thus lies within other eubacteria, contrary to a widespread assumption that it is between eubacteria and neomura. Cell wall and flagellar evolution independently locate the root outside Posibacteria (Actinobacteria and Endobacteria), and thus among negibacteria with two membranes. Posibacteria are derived from Eurybacteria and ancestral to neomura. RNA polymerase and other insertions strongly favour the monophyly of Gracilicutes (Proteobacteria, Planctobacteria, Sphingobacteria, Spirochaetes). Evolution of the negibacterial outer membrane places the root within Eobacteria (Hadobacteria and Chlorobacteria, both primitively without lipopolysaccharide): as all phyla possessing the outer membrane beta-barrel protein Omp85 are highly probably derived, the root lies between them and Chlorobacteria, the only negibacteria without Omp85, or possibly within Chlorobacteria.


Chlorobacteria are probably the oldest and Archaebacteria the youngest bacteria, with Posibacteria of intermediate age, requiring radical reassessment of dominant views of bacterial evolution. The last ancestor of all life was a eubacterium with acyl-ester membrane lipids, large genome, murein peptidoglycan walls, and fully developed eubacterial molecular biology and cell division. It was a non-flagellate negibacterium with two membranes, probably a photosynthetic green non-sulphur bacterium with relatively primitive secretory machinery, not a heterotrophic posibacterium with one membrane.

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