Perspectives on the Phylogenetic Tree

Limitations to the Classic Model

Classical thinking about prokaryotic evolution, included in the classic tree model, is that species evolve clonally. That is, they produce offspring themselves with only random mutations causing the descent into the variety of modern-day and extinct species known to science. This view is somewhat complicated in eukaryotes that reproduce sexually, but the laws of Mendelian genetics explain the variation in offspring, again, to be a result of a mutation within the species. Scientists did not consider the concept of genes transferring between unrelated species as a possibility until relatively recently. Horizontal gene transfer (HGT), or lateral gene transfer, is the transfer of genes between unrelated species. HGT is an ever-present phenomenon, with many evolutionists postulating a major role for this process in evolution, thus complicating the simple tree model. Genes pass between species which are only distantly related using standard phylogeny, thus adding a layer of complexity to understanding phylogenetic relationships.

The various ways that HGT occurs in prokaryotes is important to understanding phylogenies. Although at present some do not view HGT as important to eukaryotic evolution, HGT does occur in this domain as well. Finally, as an example of the ultimate gene transfer, some scientists have proposed genome fusion theories between symbiotic or endosymbiotic organisms to explain an event of great importance—the evolution of the first eukaryotic cell, without which humans could not have come into existence.