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Open Access Highly Accessed Comment

The common ancestry of life

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 2010, 5:64  doi:10.1186/1745-6150-5-64

Published: 18 November 2010

Abstract

Background

It is common belief that all cellular life forms on earth have a common origin. This view is supported by the universality of the genetic code and the universal conservation of multiple genes, particularly those that encode key components of the translation system. A remarkable recent study claims to provide a formal, homology independent test of the Universal Common Ancestry hypothesis by comparing the ability of a common-ancestry model and a multiple-ancestry model to predict sequences of universally conserved proteins.

Results

We devised a computational experiment on a concatenated alignment of universally conserved proteins which shows that the purported demonstration of the universal common ancestry is a trivial consequence of significant sequence similarity between the analyzed proteins. The nature and origin of this similarity are irrelevant for the prediction of "common ancestry" of by the model-comparison approach. Thus, homology (common origin) of the compared proteins remains an inference from sequence similarity rather than an independent property demonstrated by the likelihood analysis.

Conclusion

A formal demonstration of the Universal Common Ancestry hypothesis has not been achieved and is unlikely to be feasible in principle. Nevertheless, the evidence in support of this hypothesis provided by comparative genomics is overwhelming.

Reviewers

this article was reviewed by William Martin, Ivan Iossifov (nominated by Andrey Rzhetsky) and Arcady Mushegian. For the complete reviews, see the Reviewers' Report section.