Both of these phylogenetic trees show the relationship of the three domains of life—Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya—but the (a) rooted tree attempts to identify when various species diverged from a common ancestor while the (b) unrooted tree does not. (credit a: modification of work by Eric Gaba)
OpenStax Biology 2e
Scientists use a tool called a phylogenetic tree to show the evolutionary pathways and connections among organisms. A phylogenetic tree is a diagram used to reflect evolutionary relationships among organisms or groups of organisms. Scientists consider phylogenetic trees to be a hypothesis of the evolutionary past since one cannot go back to confirm the proposed relationships. In other words, we can construct a “tree of life” to illustrate when different organisms evolved and to show the relationships among different organisms.
Unlike a taxonomic classification diagram, we can read a phylogenetic tree like a map of evolutionary history. Many phylogenetic trees have a single lineage at the base representing a common ancestor. Scientists call such trees rooted, which means there is a single ancestral lineage (typically drawn from the bottom or left) to which all organisms represented in the diagram relate. Notice in the rooted phylogenetic tree that the three domains— Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya—diverge from a single point and branch off. The small branch that plants and animals (including humans) occupy in this diagram shows how recent and miniscule these groups are compared with other organisms. Unrooted trees do not show a common ancestor but do show relationships among species.
In a rooted tree, the branching indicates evolutionary relationships. The point where a split occurs, a branch point, represents where a single lineage evolved into a distinct new one. We call a lineage that evolved early from the root that remains unbranched a basal taxon. We call two lineages stemming from the same branch point sister taxa. A branch with more than two lineages is a polytomy and serves to illustrate where scientists have not definitively determined all of the relationships. Note that although sister taxa and polytomy do share an ancestor, it does not mean that the groups of organisms split or evolved from each other. Organisms in two taxa may have split at a specific branch point, but neither taxon gave rise to the other.
The diagrams above can serve as a pathway to understanding evolutionary history. We can trace the pathway from the origin of life to any individual species by navigating through the evolutionary branches between the two points. Also, by starting with a single species and tracing back towards the “trunk” of the tree, one can discover species’ ancestors, as well as where lineages share a common ancestry. In addition, we can use the tree to study entire groups of organisms.
Another point to mention on phylogenetic tree structure is that rotation at branch points does not change the information. For example, if a branch point rotated and the taxon order changed, this would not alter the information because each taxon’s evolution from the branch point was independent of the other.
Many disciplines within the study of biology contribute to understanding how past and present life evolved over time; these disciplines together contribute to building, updating, and maintaining the “tree of life.” Systematics is the field that scientists use to organize and classify organisms based on evolutionary relationships. Researchers may use data from fossils, from studying the body part structures, or molecules that an organism uses, and DNA analysis. By combining data from many sources, scientists can construct an organism’s phylogeny Since phylogenetic trees are hypotheses, they will continue to change as researchers discover new types of life and learn new information.
Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/biology-2e