AAS 201st Meeting, January, 2003
Session 62. The Biology of Astrobiology for Astronomers I
Special, Tuesday, January 7, 2003, 10:00-11:30am, 618-619

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[62.03] The Tree of Life on Earth

D. A. Stahl (Civil and Environmental Engineering/Astrobiology Program, U. Washington)

Similar biochemistry and a common genetic code unite all life on earth and speak to a common origin. However, the nature of the "family tree," encompassing all life forms in a single genealogy, has only recently begun to be understood. It was only with the advent of molecular biology and methods for sequencing proteins and nucleic acids that ancient patterns of relationship could be discerned. The basis for establishing evolutionary relationships was found in the DNA, RNA, and proteins that determine each organism's biochemistry. Common sequence patterns in today's organisms - either in the order of amino acids in proteins or the four bases making up DNA or RNA - was recognized to derive from features of ancestral molecules preserved over evolutionary time. This approach to genealogical reconstruction, called molecular phylogeny, has led to the construction of a single "Tree of Life," and revealed that all of today's life (bacteria, protozoa, plants, animals, fungi) has emerged from three primary lines of descent. Properties of the most "deeply rooted" organisms then yield important clues about conditions on the early Earth. These analyses have also revealed that the greater part of the evolutionary diversity of our planet, represented by the microorganisms, has yet to be characterized.

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Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 34, #4
© 2002. The American Astronomical Soceity.