Gene Transfer and the Reconstruction of Life’s Early History from Genomic Data

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The metaphor of the unique and strictly bifurcating tree of life, suggested by Charles Darwin, needs to be replaced (or at least amended) to reflect and include processes that lead to the merging of and communication between independent lines of descent. Gene histories include and reflect processes such as gene transfer, symbioses and lineage fusion. No single molecule can serve as a proxy for the tree of life. Individual gene histories can be reconstructed from the growing molecular databases containing sequence and structural information. With some simplifications these gene histories can be represented by furcating trees; however, merging these gene histories into web-like organismal histories, including the transfer of metabolic pathways and cell biological innovations from now-extinct lineages, has yet to be accomplished. Because of these difficulties in interpreting the record retained in molecular sequences, correlations with biochemical fossils and with the geological record need to be interpreted with caution. Advances to detect and pinpoint transfer events promise to untangle at least a few of the intertwined histories of individual genes within organisms and trace them to the organismal ancestors. Furthermore, analysis of the shape of molecular phylogenetic trees may point towards organismal radiations that might reflect early mass extinction events that occurred on a planetary scale.