Haeckel’s and Whittaker’s trees presented hypotheses about the phylogeny of different organisms based on readily observable characteristics. But the advent of molecular genetics in the late 20th century revealed other ways to organize phylogenetic trees. Genetic methods allow for a standardized way to compare all living organisms without relying on observable characteristics that can often be subjective. Modern taxonomy relies heavily on comparing the nucleic acids (deoxyribonucleic acid [DNA] or ribonucleic acid [RNA]) or proteins from different organisms. The more similar the nucleic acids and proteins are between two organisms, the more closely related they are considered to be.
In the 1970s, American microbiologist Carl Woese discovered what appeared to be a “living record” of the evolution of organisms. He and his collaborator George Fox created a genetics-based tree of life based on similarities and differences they observed in the gene sequences coding for small subunit ribosomal RNA (rRNA) of different organisms. In the process, they discovered that a certain type of bacteria, called archaebacteria (now known simply as archaea), were significantly different from other bacteria and eukaryotes in terms of their small subunit rRNA gene sequences. To accommodate this difference, they created a tree with three Domains above the level of Kingdom: Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya. Analysis of small subunit rRNA gene sequences suggests archaea, bacteria, and eukaryotes all evolved from a common ancestral cell type. The tree is skewed to show a closer evolutionary relationship between Archaea and Eukarya than they have to Bacteria.
Scientists continue to use analysis of RNA, DNA, and proteins to determine how organisms are related. One interesting, and complicating, discovery is that of horizontal gene transfer—when a gene of one species is absorbed into another organism’s genome. Horizontal gene transfer is especially common in microorganisms and can make it difficult to determine how organisms are evolutionarily related. Consequently, some scientists now think in terms of “webs of life” rather than “trees of life.”
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology