Molecular evolution before the origin of species

Prog Biophys Mol Biol. 2002 May-Jul;79(1-3):77-133. doi: 10.1016/s0079-6107(02)00012-3.


Amino acids at conserved sites in the residue sequence of 10 ancient proteins, from 844 phylogenetically diverse sources, were used to specify their time of origin in the interval before species divergence from the last common ancestor (LCA). The order of amino acid addition to the genetic code, based on biosynthesis path length and other molecular evidence, provided a reference for evaluating the 'code age' of each residue profile examined. Significantly earlier estimates were obtained for conserved amino acid residues in these proteins than non-conserved residues. Evidence from the primary structure of 'fossil' proteins thus corroborated the biosynthetic order of amino acid addition to the code.Low potential ferredoxin (Fdxn) had the earliest residue profile among the proteins in this study. A phylogenetic tree for 82 prokaryote Fdxn sequences was rooted midway between bacteria and archaea branches. LCA Fdxn had a 23-residue antecedent whose residue profile matched mid-expansion phase codon assignments and included an amide residue. It contained a highly acidic N-terminal region and a non-charged C-terminal region, with all four cysteine residues. This small protein apparently anchored a [4Fe-4S] cluster, ligated by C-terminal cysteines, to a positively charged mineral surface, consistent with mediating e(-) transfer in a primordial surface system before cells appeared. Its negatively charged N-terminal 'attachment site' was highly mutable during evolution of ancestral Fdxn for Bacteria and Archaea, consistent with a loss of function after cell formation. An initial glutamate to lysine substitution may link 'attachment site' removal to early post-expansion phase entry of basic amino acids to the code. As proteins evidently anchored non-charged amide residues initially, surface attachment of cofactors and other functional groups emerges as a general function of pre-cell proteins.A phylogenetic tree of 107 proteolipid (PL) helix-1 sequences from H(+)-ATPase of bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes had its root between prokaryote branches. LCA PL h1 residue profile optimally fit a late expansion phase codon array. Sequence repeats in transmembrane PL helices h1 and h2 indicated formation of the archetypal PL hairpin structure involved successive tandem duplications, initiated within the gene for an 11-residue (or 4-residue) hydrophobic peptide. Ancestral PL h1 lacked acidic residues, in a fundamental departure from the prototype pre-cell protein. By this stage, proteins with a hydrophobic domain had evolved. Its non-polar, late expansion phase residue profile point to ancestral PL being a component of an early permeable cell membrane. Other indicators of cell formation about this stage of code evolution include phospholipid biosynthesis path length, FtsZ residue profile, and late entry of basic amino acids into the genetic code. Estimates based on conserved residues in prokaryote cell septation protein, FtsZ, and proteins involved with synthesis, transcription and replication of DNA revealed FtsZ, ribonucleotide reductase, RNA polymerase core subunits and 5'-->3' flap exonuclease, FEN-1, originated soon after cells putatively evolved. While reverse transcriptase and topoisomerase I, Topo I, appeared late in the pre-divergence era, when the genetic code was essentially complete. The transition from RNA genes to a DNA genome seemingly proceeded via formation of a DNA-RNA heteroduplex. These results suggest formation of DNA awaited evolution of a catalyst with a hydrophobic domain, capable of sequestering radical bearing intermediates in its synthesis from ribonucleotide precursors. Late formation of topology altering protein, Topo I, further suggests consolidation of genes into chromosomes followed synthesis of comparatively thermostable DNA strands.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Archaeal Proteins / genetics
  • Bacterial Proteins / genetics
  • Cell Division
  • Cell Membrane / enzymology
  • DNA / genetics
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Ferredoxins / genetics
  • Models, Biological
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Origin of Life*
  • Phylogeny
  • Proteins / genetics*
  • Proton-Translocating ATPases / genetics
  • Sequence Homology, Amino Acid


  • Archaeal Proteins
  • Bacterial Proteins
  • Ferredoxins
  • Proteins
  • DNA
  • Proton-Translocating ATPases