Doolittle arranca pela raiz a Árvore da Vida de Darwin

sexta-feira, agosto 20, 2010

Uprooting Tree of Life

About 10 years ago scientists finally worked out the basic outline of how modern life-forms evolved. Now parts of their tidy scheme are unraveling

Charles Darwin contended more than a century ago that all modern species diverged from a more limited set of ancestral groups, which themselves evolved from still fewer progenitors and so on back to the beginning of life. In principle, then, the relationships among all living and extinct organisms could be represented as a single genealogical tree.

Most contemporary researchers agree. Many would even argue that the general features of this tree are already known, all the way down to the root—a solitary cell, termed life’s last universal common ancestor, that lived roughly 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago. The consensus view did not come easily but has been widely accepted for more than a decade.

Yet ill winds are blowing. To everyone’s surprise, discoveries made in the past few years have begun to cast serious doubt on some aspects of the tree, especially on the depiction of the relationships near the root.

The First Sketches

Scientists could not even begin to contemplate constructing a universal tree until about 35 years ago. From the time of Aristotle to the 1960s, researchers deduced the relatedness of organisms by comparing their anatomy or physiology, or both. For complex organisms, they were frequently able to draw reasonable genealogical inferences in this way. Detailed analyses of innumerable traits suggested, for instance, that hominids shared a common ancestor with apes, that this common ancestor shared an earlier one with monkeys, and that that precursor shared an even earlier forebear with prosimians, and so forth. 

Microscopic single-celled organisms, however, often provided too little information for defining relationships. That paucity was disturbing because microbes were the only inhabitants of the earth for the first half to two thirds of the planet’s history; the absence of a clear phylogeny (family tree) for microorganisms left scientists unsure about the sequence in which some of the most radical innovations in cellular structure and function occurred. For example, between the birth of the first cell and the appearance of multicellular fungi, plants and animals, cells grew bigger and more complex, gained a nucleus and a cytoskeleton (internal scaffolding), and found a way to eat other cells. In the mid-1960s Emile Zuckerkandl and Linus Pauling of the California Institute of Technology conceived of a revolutionary strategy that could supply the missing information.


Vote neste blog para o prêmio TOPBLOG.