Bacterial diversification through geological time

Nat Ecol Evol. 2018 Sep;2(9):1458-1467. doi: 10.1038/s41559-018-0625-0. Epub 2018 Jul 30.


Numerous studies have estimated plant and animal diversification dynamics; however, no comparable rigorous estimates exist for bacteria-the most ancient and widespread form of life on Earth. Here, we analyse phylogenies comprising up to 448,112 bacterial lineages to reconstruct global bacterial diversification dynamics. To handle such large phylogenies, we developed methods based on the statistical properties of infinitely large trees. We further analysed sequencing data from 60 environmental studies to determine the fraction of extant bacterial diversity missing from the phylogenies-a crucial parameter for estimating speciation and extinction rates. We estimate that there are about 1.4-1.9 million extant bacterial lineages when lineages are defined by 99% similarity in the 16S ribosomal RNA gene, and that bacterial diversity has been continuously increasing over the past 1 billion years (Gyr). Recent bacterial extinction rates are estimated at 0.03-0.05 per lineage per million years (lineage-1 Myr-1), and are only slightly below estimated recent bacterial speciation rates. Most bacterial lineages ever to have inhabited this planet are estimated to be extinct. Our findings disprove the notion that bacteria are unlikely to go extinct, and provide a valuable perspective on the evolutionary history of a domain of life with a sparse and cryptic fossil record.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / genetics*
  • Biodiversity*
  • Extinction, Biological
  • Phylogeny
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S


  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S