Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Formal Test of Common Ancestry

A formal test of the theory of universal common ancestry. 2010. D. L. Theobald. Nature: 465: 219-222.

A nod of the cap to Frank Frazetta who passed away this week.
More than 150 years ago, Darwin proposed the theory of universal common ancestry (UCA), linking all forms of life by a shared genetic heritage from single-celled microorganisms to humans. Until now, the theory has remained beyond the scope of a formal test. This week the results of the first large scale, quantitative test of the famous theory that underpins modern evolutionary biology were reported. It works!
Recent molecular evidence indicates that primordial life may have undergone rampant horizontal gene transfer, which occurs frequently today when single-celled organisms swap genes using mechanisms other than usual organismal reproduction. In that case, some scientists argue, early evolutionary relationships were web-like, making it possible that life sprang up independently from many ancestors.

According to biochemist Douglas Theobald, it doesn't really matter. "Let's say life originated independently multiple times, which UCA allows is possible," said Theobald. "If so, the theory holds that a bottleneck occurred in evolution, with descendants of only one of the independent origins surviving until the present. Alternatively, separate populations could have merged, by exchanging enough genes over time to become a single species that eventually was ancestral to us all. Either way, all of life would still be genetically related."

Harnessing powerful computational tools and applying Bayesian statistics, Theobald found that the evidence overwhelmingly supports UCA, regardless of horizontal gene transfer or multiple origins of life. Theobald said UCA is millions of times more probable than any theory of multiple independent ancestries.

Theobald is the first to formally test Darwin's theory across all three domains of life. The three domains include diverse life forms such as the Eukarya (organisms, including humans, yeast, and plants, whose cells have a DNA-containing nucleus) as well as Bacteria and Archaea (two distinct groups of unicellular microorganisms whose DNA floats around in the cell instead of in a nucleus). Theobald studied a set of 23 universally conserved, essential proteins found in all known organisms.

Just what did this universal common ancestor look like and where did it live? Theobald's study doesn't answer this question. Nevertheless, he speculated, "to us, it would most likely look like some sort of froth, perhaps living at the edge of the ocean, or deep in the ocean on a geothermal vent. At the molecular level, I'm sure it would have looked as complex and beautiful as modern life." link