The Evolution of Prokaryotes


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Part a: The micrograph shows ball-shaped cocci about 0.9 microns long. Part b: The micrograph shows elongated, oval-shaped bacilli about 2 microns long. Part c: The micrograph shows corkscrew-shaped spirilli that are quite long and 2 microns in diameter.
Common prokaryotic cell types. Prokaryotes fall into three basic categories based on their shape, visualized here using scanning electron microscopy: (a) cocci, or spherical (a pair is shown); (b) bacilli, or rod-shaped; and (c) spirilli, or spiral-shaped. (credit a: modification of work by Janice Haney Carr, Dr. Richard Facklam, CDC; credit c: modification of work by Dr. David Cox; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

OpenStax Biology 2e

How do scientists answer questions about the evolution of prokaryotes? Unlike with animals, artifacts in the fossil record of prokaryotes offer very little information. Fossils of ancient prokaryotes look like tiny bubbles in rock. Some scientists turn to genetics and to the principle of the molecular clock, which holds that the more recently two species have diverged, the more similar their genes (and thus proteins) will be. Conversely, species that diverged long ago will have more genes that are dissimilar.

Scientists at the NASA Astrobiology Institute and at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory collaborated to analyze the molecular evolution of 32 specific proteins common to 72 species of prokaryotes.2 The model they derived from their data indicates that three important groups of bacteria—Actinobacteria, Deinococcus, and Cyanobacteria (collectively called Terrabacteria by the authors)—were the first to colonize land. Actinobacteria are a group of very common Gram-positive bacteria that produce branched structures like fungal mycelia, and include species important in decomposition of organic wastes. You will recall that Deinococcus is a genus of bacterium that is highly resistant to ionizing radiation. It has a thick peptidoglycan layer in addition to a second external membrane, so it has features of both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria.

Cyanobacteria are photosynthesizers, and were probably responsible for the production of oxygen on the ancient earth. The timelines of divergence suggest that bacteria (members of the domain Bacteria) diverged from common ancestral species between 2.5 and 3.2 billion years ago, whereas the Archaea diverged earlier: between 3.1 and 4.1 billion years ago. Eukarya later diverged from the archaean line. The work further suggests that stromatolites that formed prior to the advent of cyanobacteria (about 2.6 billion years ago) photosynthesized in an anoxic environment and that because of the modifications of the Terrabacteria for land (resistance to drying and the possession of compounds that protect the organism from excess light), photosynthesis using oxygen may be closely linked to adaptations to survive on land.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: