The universal ancestor at the root of the species tree of life depicts a population of organisms with a surprising degree of complexity, posessing genomes and translation systems much like that of microbial life today. As the first life forms were most likely to have been simple replicators, considerable evolutionary change must have taken place prior to the last universal common ancestor. It is often assumed that the lack of earlier branches on the tree of life is due to a prevalence of random horizontal gene transfer that obscured the delineations between lineages and hindered their divergence. Therefore, principles of microbial evolution and ecology may give us some insight into these early stages in the history of life. Here, we synthesize the current understanding of organismal and genome evolution from the perspective of microbial ecology and apply these evolutionary principles to the earliest stages of life on Earth. We focus especially on broad evolutionary modes pertaining to horizontal gene transfer, pangenome structure, and microbial mat communities.
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