Empirical genome evolution models root the tree of life

Ajith Harish, Charles G. Kurland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A reliable phylogenetic reconstruction of the evolutionary history of contemporary species depends on a robust identification of the universal common ancestor (UCA) at the root of the Tree of Life (ToL). That root polarizes the tree so that the evolutionary succession of ancestors to descendants is discernable. In effect, the root determines the branching order and the direction of character evolution. Typically, conventional phylogenetic analyses implement time-reversible models of evolution for which character evolution is un-polarized. Such practices leave the root and the direction of character evolution undefined by the data used to construct such trees. In such cases, rooting relies on theoretic assumptions and/or the use of external data to interpret unrooted trees. The most common rooting method, the outgroup method is clearly inapplicable to the ToL, which has no outgroup. Both here and in the accompanying paper (Harish and Kurland, 2017) we have explored the theoretical and technical issues related to several rooting methods. We demonstrate (1) that Genome-level characters and evolution models are necessary for species phylogeny reconstructions. By the same token, standard practices exploiting sequence-based methods that implement gene-scale substitution models do not root species trees; (2) Modeling evolution of complex genomic characters and processes that are non-reversible and non-stationary is required to reconstruct the polarized evolution of the ToL; (3) Rooting experiments and Bayesian model selection tests overwhelmingly support the earlier finding that akaryotes and eukaryotes are sister clades that descend independently from UCA (Harish and Kurland, 2013); (4) Consistent ancestral state reconstructions from independent genome samplings confirm the previous finding that UCA features three fourths of the unique protein domain-superfamilies encoded by extant genomes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)137-155
Number of pages19
Publication statusPublished - 2017 Jul 1

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Evolutionary Biology

Free keywords

  • Empirical rooting
  • Eukaryogenesis
  • LUCA
  • Nonreversible model
  • Phylogeny
  • Tree of life


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