Introduction to Phylogenetic Trees

What you’ll learn to do: Read and analyze a phylogenetic tree that documents evolutionary relationships

In scientific terms, the evolutionary history and relationship of an organism or group of organisms is called phylogeny. Phylogeny describes the relationships of an organism, such as from which organisms it is thought to have evolved, to which species it is most closely related, and so forth.

Phylogenetic relationships provide information on shared ancestry but not necessarily on how organisms are similar or different. In other words, a “tree of life” can be constructed to illustrate when different organisms evolved and to show the relationships among different organisms (Figure 1).

A rooted phylogenetic tree 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.

Figure 1. This phylogenetic tree was constructed by microbiologist Carl Woese (See inset below) using genetic relationships. The tree shows the separation of living organisms into three domains: Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya. Bacteria and Archaea are organisms without a nucleus or other organelles surrounded by a membrane and, therefore, are prokaryotes. (credit: modification of work by Eric Gaba)



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