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The fundamental units, processes and patterns of evolution, and the Tree of Life conundrum

Eugene V Koonin* and Yuri I Wolf

Author Affiliations

National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20894, USA

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Biology Direct 2009, 4:33  doi:10.1186/1745-6150-4-33

Published: 29 September 2009



The elucidation of the dominant role of horizontal gene transfer (HGT) in the evolution of prokaryotes led to a severe crisis of the Tree of Life (TOL) concept and intense debates on this subject.


Prompted by the crisis of the TOL, we attempt to define the primary units and the fundamental patterns and processes of evolution. We posit that replication of the genetic material is the singular fundamental biological process and that replication with an error rate below a certain threshold both enables and necessitates evolution by drift and selection. Starting from this proposition, we outline a general concept of evolution that consists of three major precepts.

1. The primary agency of evolution consists of Fundamental Units of Evolution (FUEs), that is, units of genetic material that possess a substantial degree of evolutionary independence. The FUEs include both bona fide selfish elements such as viruses, viroids, transposons, and plasmids, which encode some of the information required for their own replication, and regular genes that possess quasi-independence owing to their distinct selective value that provides for their transfer between ensembles of FUEs (genomes) and preferential replication along with the rest of the recipient genome.

2. The history of replication of a genetic element without recombination is isomorphously represented by a directed tree graph (an arborescence, in the graph theory language). Recombination within a FUE is common between very closely related sequences where homologous recombination is feasible but becomes negligible for longer evolutionary distances. In contrast, shuffling of FUEs occurs at all evolutionary distances. Thus, a tree is a natural representation of the evolution of an individual FUE on the macro scale, but not of an ensemble of FUEs such as a genome.

3. The history of life is properly represented by the "forest" of evolutionary trees for individual FUEs (Forest of Life, or FOL). Search for trends and patterns in the FOL is a productive direction of study that leads to the delineation of ensembles of FUEs that evolve coherently for a certain time span owing to a shared history of vertical inheritance or horizontal gene transfer; these ensembles are commonly known as genomes, taxa, or clades, depending on the level of analysis. A small set of genes (the universal genetic core of life) might show a (mostly) coherent evolutionary trend that transcends the entire history of cellular life forms. However, it might not be useful to denote this trend "the tree of life", or organismal, or species tree because neither organisms nor species are fundamental units of life.


A logical analysis of the units and processes of biological evolution suggests that the natural fundamental unit of evolution is a FUE, that is, a genetic element with an independent evolutionary history. Evolution of a FUE on the macro scale is naturally represented by a tree. Only the full compendium of trees for individual FUEs (the FOL) is an adequate depiction of the evolution of life. Coherent evolution of FUEs over extended evolutionary intervals is a crucial aspect of the history of life but a "species" or "organismal" tree is not a fundamental concept.


This articles was reviewed by Valerian Dolja, W. Ford Doolittle, Nicholas Galtier, and William Martin