Inferring the palaeoenvironment of ancient bacteria on the basis of resurrected proteins

Nature. 2003 Sep 18;425(6955):285-8. doi: 10.1038/nature01977.


Features of the physical environment surrounding an ancestral organism can be inferred by reconstructing sequences of ancient proteins made by those organisms, resurrecting these proteins in the laboratory, and measuring their properties. Here, we resurrect candidate sequences for elongation factors of the Tu family (EF-Tu) found at ancient nodes in the bacterial evolutionary tree, and measure their activities as a function of temperature. The ancient EF-Tu proteins have temperature optima of 55-65 degrees C. This value seems to be robust with respect to uncertainties in the ancestral reconstruction. This suggests that the ancient bacteria that hosted these particular genes were thermophiles, and neither hyperthermophiles nor mesophiles. This conclusion can be compared and contrasted with inferences drawn from an analysis of the lengths of branches in trees joining proteins from contemporary bacteria, the distribution of thermophily in derived bacterial lineages, the inferred G + C content of ancient ribosomal RNA, and the geological record combined with assumptions concerning molecular clocks. The study illustrates the use of experimental palaeobiochemistry and assumptions about deep phylogenetic relationships between bacteria to explore the character of ancient life.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / classification
  • Bacteria / metabolism*
  • Bacterial Proteins / metabolism*
  • Base Composition
  • Environment*
  • Enzyme Stability
  • Guanosine Diphosphate / metabolism
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Peptide Elongation Factor Tu / metabolism*
  • Phylogeny
  • Protein Binding
  • RNA, Ribosomal / genetics
  • Temperature
  • Time Factors


  • Bacterial Proteins
  • RNA, Ribosomal
  • Guanosine Diphosphate
  • Peptide Elongation Factor Tu

Associated data

  • GENBANK/AY305395
  • GENBANK/AY305396
  • GENBANK/AY305397