Background: The timescale of prokaryote evolution has been difficult to reconstruct because of a limited fossil record and complexities associated with molecular clocks and deep divergences. However, the relatively large number of genome sequences currently available has provided a better opportunity to control for potential biases such as horizontal gene transfer and rate differences among lineages. We assembled a data set of sequences from 32 proteins (approximately 7600 amino acids) common to 72 species and estimated phylogenetic relationships and divergence times with a local clock method.
Results: Our phylogenetic results support most of the currently recognized higher-level groupings of prokaryotes. Of particular interest is a well-supported group of three major lineages of eubacteria (Actinobacteria, Deinococcus, and Cyanobacteria) that we call Terrabacteria and associate with an early colonization of land. Divergence time estimates for the major groups of eubacteria are between 2.5-3.2 billion years ago (Ga) while those for archaebacteria are mostly between 3.1-4.1 Ga. The time estimates suggest a Hadean origin of life (prior to 4.1 Ga), an early origin of methanogenesis (3.8-4.1 Ga), an origin of anaerobic methanotrophy after 3.1 Ga, an origin of phototrophy prior to 3.2 Ga, an early colonization of land 2.8-3.1 Ga, and an origin of aerobic methanotrophy 2.5-2.8 Ga.
Conclusions: Our early time estimates for methanogenesis support the consideration of methane, in addition to carbon dioxide, as a greenhouse gas responsible for the early warming of the Earths' surface. Our divergence times for the origin of anaerobic methanotrophy are compatible with highly depleted carbon isotopic values found in rocks dated 2.8-2.6 Ga. An early origin of phototrophy is consistent with the earliest bacterial mats and structures identified as stromatolites, but a 2.6 Ga origin of cyanobacteria suggests that those Archean structures, if biologically produced, were made by anoxygenic photosynthesizers. The resistance to desiccation of Terrabacteria and their elaboration of photoprotective compounds suggests that the common ancestor of this group inhabited land. If true, then oxygenic photosynthesis may owe its origin to terrestrial adaptations.