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Biodiversity at the molecular level: the domains, kingdoms and phyla of life

Lookup NU author(s): Emeritus Professor T. Martin Embley FMedSci FRS, Professor Robert HirtORCiD


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The results of comparative sequence analysis, mainly of small subunit (SSU) ribosomal (r)RNA sequences, have suggested that all of cellular life can be placed in one of three domains: the Archaea, Bacteria or Eucarya. There is some evidence that the Archaea may not be a monophyletic assemblage, but as yet this issue has not been resolved. Most of the lineages, and all of the deepest ones, in the tree based upon SSU rRNA sequences, are microbial. Traditional ideas of classification such as Whittaker's five kingdom scheme do not adequately describe life's diversity as revealed by sequence comparisons. There are many microbial groups that demonstrate much greater amounts of SSU rRNA sequence divergence than do members of the classical kingdoms, Animalia, Plantae and Fungi. The old microbial kingdoms Monera and Protista are clearly paraphyletic but as yet there is no consensus as to how they should be reorganized in taxonomic terms. New data from environmental analysis suggests that much of the microbial world is unknown. Every environment which has been analysed by molecular methods has revealed many previously unrecorded lineages. Some of these show great divergence from the sequences of cultured microorganisms suggesting that fundamentally new microbial groups remain to be isolated. The relationships of some of these new lineages may be expected to affect how the tree of life is organized into higher taxa, and to also influence which features will be recognized as synapomorphies. There is currently no objective measure whereby microbial diversity can be quantified and compared to the figures which are widely quoted for arthropods and other Metazoa.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Embley TM; Hirt RP; Williams DM

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London: Biological Sciences

Year: 1994

Volume: 345

Issue: 1311

Pages: 21-33

Print publication date: 29/07/1994

ISSN (print): 0962-8436

ISSN (electronic): 1471-2970

Publisher: The Royal Society Publishing