On the conceptual difficulties in rooting the tree of life

Trends Microbiol. 2004 Jan;12(1):9-13. doi: 10.1016/j.tim.2003.11.002.


Rooting the 'tree of life' represents a major challenge for evolutionists. Without such a root, many of the first steps in biological evolution cannot be reconstructed. However, the nature of the last common ancestor of all living beings remains elusive, proof of the difficulty in shedding light on such an ancient event. Here, we highlight the practical difficulties and conceptual reasons that hinder the placement of a universal root. We discuss how, when addressing the question of the root of the tree of life, scientists unconsciously risk using the reasoning pattern of ancient skeptics, unfortunately known only to lead to further uncertainty. Hence, we argue that the root of the tree of life will not be established unless radically new approaches are considered. We propose a hypothetical means to overcome several of the conceptual difficulties pointed out, and suggest that a so-called 'transition analysis' of the structural evolution of the cytoplasmic membrane might be helpful, especially if evolutionary steps involving the rooting issue are polarized accounting more for physicochemical knowledge rather than hypothetical and controversial selective advantages.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cell Membrane / genetics*
  • Cell Membrane / physiology
  • Eukaryotic Cells
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Phylogeny*
  • Prokaryotic Cells