Larry Moran discusses Carl Zimmer’s latest piece for Science on the origin of eukaryotes:

This is well-timed since it appears just when I’ve returned from a meeting on this very topic. [Go here if you can’t see the article on the Science website.]

One of the things we learned at the meeting is that the Woose tree of life is almost certainly an over-simplification at best and wrong at worst. It is no longer possible to claim that eukaryotes have a simple vertical descent relationship with any archaebacterium (or any bacterium, for that matter).

Instead, the early history of life is characterized by a web or a net involving multiple gene exchanges between all primitive species. After some time, the major divisions of life emerged from this “soup” and became separate lineages with an semi-independent history. This view dates back ten years or so and it’s illustrated by a figure that Ford Doolittle published in the February 2000 issue of Scientific American. I’ve used this figure several times. Here it is again so you can see how it relates to Carl’s article.

In the case of eukaryotes, the history is complicated by an endosymbiotic event where a proteobacterium was engulfed and evolved into mitochondria. That explains many of the eukaryotic genes with a clear bacterial origin. Those genes, can be reliably traced to a particular lineage of proteobacteria. What this shows is that by the time of the endosymbiosis most of the main lineages of prokaryotes had emerged from the soup and become fairly well-defined.

This doesn’t explain the origins of the host cell. That cell presumably had some of the features of modern eukaryotes. Where did it come from? Was it part of an ancient lineage that formed during the gene exchange period of evolution suggesting that some eukaryotic features are ancient? Was it formed by a fusion between a primitive bacterial cell and a primitive archaebacterium? (Or, did archaebacterial arise from a fusion of a primitive eukaryotic cell and a primitive bacterium?)