Organism - Evolution


See also: Common descent and Origin of life

In biology, the theory of universal common descent proposes that all organisms on Earth are descended from a common ancestor or ancestral gene pool. Evidence for common descent may be found in traits shared between all living organisms. In Darwin's day, the evidence of shared traits was based solely on visible observation of morphologic similarities, such as the fact that all birds have wings, even those that do not fly.

Today, there is debate over whether or not all organisms descended from a common ancestor, or a "last universal ancestor" (LUA), also called the "last universal common ancestor" (LUCA), the hypothetical unicellular organism or single cell that gave rise to all life on Earth 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago. The universality of genetic coding suggests common ancestry. For example, every living cell makes use of nucleic acids as its genetic material, and uses the same twenty amino acids as the building blocks for proteins, although exceptions to the basic twenty amino acids have been found. However, throughout history groupings based on appearance or function of species have sometimes been polyphyletic due to convergent evolution.

It was once thought that the genetic code was invariably universal (see: Universal genetic code), but many variations have been discovered including various alternative mitochondrial codes. Back in the early 1970s, evolutionary biologists thought that a given piece of DNA specified the same protein subunit in every living thing, and that the genetic code was thus universal. This was interpreted as evidence that every organism had inherited its genetic code from a single common ancestor, aka, an LUCA. In 1979, however, exceptions to the code were found in mitochondria, the tiny energy factories inside cells. Researchers studying human mitochondrial genes discovered that they used an alternative code, and many slight variants have been discovered since, including various alternative mitochondrial codes, as well as small variants such as Mycoplasma translating the codon UGA as tryptophan. Biologists subsequently found exceptions in bacteria and in the nuclei of algae and single-cell animals. For example, certain proteins may use alternative initiation (start) codons not normally used by that species. In certain proteins, non-standard amino acids are substituted for standard stop codons, depending upon associated signal sequences in the messenger RNA: UGA can code for selenocysteine and UAG can code for pyrrolysine. Selenocysteine is now viewed as the 21st amino acid, and pyrrolysine is viewed as the 22nd. A detailed description of variations in the genetic code can be found at the NCBI web site.

Information about the early development of life includes input from many different fields, including geology and planetary science. These sciences provide information about the history of the Earth and the changes produced by life. However, a great deal of information about the early Earth has been destroyed by geological processes over the course of time.

Read more about this topic:  Organism

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