Reading: Structure of Phylogenetic Trees

A phylogenetic tree can be read 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 don’t show a common ancestor but do show relationships among species.

The phylogenetic tree in part a is rooted and resembles a living tree, with a common ancestor indicated as the base of the trunk. Two branches form from the trunk. The left branch leads to the domain Bacteria. The right branch branches again, giving rise to Archaea and Eukarya. Smaller branches within each domain indicate the groups present in that domain. The phylogenetic tree in part B is unrooted. It does not resemble a living tree; rather, groups of organisms within the Archaea, Eukarya, and Bacteria domains are arranged in a circle. Lines connect the groups within each domain. The groups within Archaea and Eukarya are then connected together. A line from the Archaea/ Eukarya domains, and another from the Bacteria meet in the center of the circle. There is no root, and therefore no indication of which domain arose first.

Figure 1. Both of these phylogenetic trees shows 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)

In a rooted tree, the branching indicates evolutionary relationships (Figure 2). The point where a split occurs, called a branch point, represents where a single lineage evolved into a distinct new one. A lineage that evolved early from the root and remains unbranched is called basal taxon. When two lineages stem from the same branch point, they are called sister taxa. A branch with more than two lineages is called a polytomy and serves to illustrate where scientists have not definitively determined all of the relationships. It is important to 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 apart at a specific branch point, but neither taxa gave rise to the other.

Illustration shows a phylogenetic tree that starts at a root, indicating that all organisms on the tree share a common ancestor. Shortly after the root, the tree branches out. One branch gives rise to a single, basal lineage, and the other gives rise to all other organisms on the tree. The next branch forks at one point into four different lineages, an example of polytomy. The final branch gives rise to two lineages, an example of sister taxa.

Figure 2. The root of a phylogenetic tree indicates that an ancestral lineage gave rise to all organisms on the tree. A branch point indicates where two lineages diverged. A lineage that evolved early and remains unbranched is a basal taxon. When two lineages stem from the same branch point, they are sister taxa. A branch with more than two lineages is a polytomy.

The diagrams above can serve as a pathway to understanding evolutionary history. The pathway can be traced 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 that species’ ancestors, as well as where lineages share a common ancestry. In addition, the tree can be used 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 was rotated and the taxon order changed, this would not alter the information because the evolution of each taxon 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.” Information is used to organize and classify organisms based on evolutionary relationships in a scientific field called systematics. Data may be collected from fossils, from studying the structure of body parts or molecules used by an organism, and by DNA analysis. By combining data from many sources, scientists can put together the phylogeny of an organism; since phylogenetic trees are hypotheses, they will continue to change as new types of life are discovered and new information is learned.

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