Proof is in the proteins

For duals of order-theoretic lattices, see order dual.

Proof is in the proteins

In the 19th century, Charles Darwin went beyond others, who had proposed that there might be a common ancestor for all mammals or animals, and suggested that there was likely a common ancestor for all life on the planet—plant, animal and bacterial.

A new statistical analysis takes this assumption to the bench and finds that it not only holds water but indeed is overwhelmingly sound.

Was it not already obvious, from the discovery and deciphering of DNA, that all life forms are descended from a single common organism—or at least a basal species?

No, says Douglas Theobaldan assistant professor of biochemistry of Brandeis University and author of the new study, detailed in the May 13 issue of Nature. Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.

In fact, he says, "When Proof is in the proteins went into it, I really didn't know what the answer would be. Yet, he notes that evolution can make "testable predictions about the past especially quantitative ones " tricky at best. It will probably lead to a jump in what is expected of the formal evaluation of hypotheses, and that would help everybody.

Proof is in the proteins

And since then, "it's been widely assumed as true," he notes. But in the past couple decades, new doubt has emerged in some circles. Microbiologists have gained a better understanding of genetic behavior of simple life forms, which can be much more amorphous than the typical, vertical transfer of genes from one generation to the next.

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The ability of microbes such as bacteria and viruses to exchange genes laterally among individuals—and even among species —changes some of the basic structural understanding of the map of evolution. With horizontal gene transfersgenetic signatures can move swiftly between branches, quickly turning a traditional tree into a tangled web.

This dynamic "throws doubt on this tree of life model," Theobald says. And "once you throw doubt on that, it kind of throws doubt on common ancestry as well. A test for evolution Other researchers had put certain sections of life to the test, including a similar statistical analysis by Penny testing the relation of several vertebrate species.

Theobald describes the paper as "cool, but the problem there is that they aren't testing universal ancestry. In the course of his research, Theobald had been bumping against a common but "almost intractable evolutionary problem" in molecular biology.

Many macromolecules, such as proteins, have similar three-dimensional structures but vastly different genetic sequences.

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The question that plagued him was: Were these similar structures examples of convergent evolution or evidence of common ancestry? He wanted to figure out whether focusing on those similarities was leading scientists astray.

Abandoned assumptions Most people and even scientists operate under the premise that genetic similarities imply a common relation or ancestor.

But as with similarities in physical appearance or structure, these assumptions "can be criticized," Theobald notes.

Proof is in the proteins

Natural selection has provided numerous examples of convergent physical evolution, such as the prehensile tales of possums and spider monkeys or the long sticky insect-eating tongues of anteaters and armadillos.

And with horizontal gene transfer on top of that, similar arguments could be made for genetic sequences.

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He ran various statistical evolutionary models, including ones that took horizontal gene transfer into consideration and others that did not. And the models that accounted for horizontal gene transfer ended up providing the most statistical support for a universal common ancestor.

Murky origins Theobald says his most surprising results were "how strongly they support common ancestry. Nor, however, do they infer a "web of life" structure.Proofreading also occurs in mRNA translation for protein synthesis. In this case, one mechanism is release of any incorrect aminoacyl-tRNA before peptide bond formation.

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