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LUCA - The Most Recent Universal Common Ancestor
Linnaean Taxonomy Phylogeny and hypothetical timeline (not to scale)
  • Domain: Eukarya

Hadean  Archean     Proterozoic        Phanerozoic  
Origin of
Life on Earth
`--LUCA |--Eubacteria ----------------------------- `--Ancestral Neomura |--Archaea ---------------------------- `-----------Eukarya -------------------
(note: Neomura = Archaea if the latter is paraphyletic (i.e. if it includes ancestors to Eukarya)
LUCA and related topics: Origin of Life | Looking for LUCA Without a Map | Lateral gene transfer | References | Links

Eukarya - The Eukaryotes

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General Information

Organisms in which the genetic material is contained within a nuclear membrane are known as Eukaryotes, the name means "true kernel". This domain includes all multicellular forms of life: Plants, Fungi, and Animals. However, in this section, we will deal only with the group classically called "Protista," single-celled Eukarya. In fact, the line is a bit vague. By convention, slime molds are treated as "protists" while sponges and Cnidaria (or at least most of them, as we will see) are treated as Metazoa. Similar uncertainty marks the borderlands of the plants and fungi.

Unlike prokaryotes, (the Archaea and Eubacteria) the Eukarya have a more compartmentalized cellular structure. These structures have sometimes been very different from the compartments of the average plant or animal cell. However, all eukaryotes confine the bulk of their genetic material in a well-defined nucleus surrounded by a membrane. The eukaryote cell also usually includes organelles such as mitochondria, which combine carbohydrates and fatty acids with oxygen to generate energy, and/or chloroplasts, which carry out photosynthesis, gathering energy from sunlight and storing it in the form of carbohydrates. According to the standard explanation, these particular organelles evolved through a symbiotic association of specialized prokaryotic organisms, each providing a different function and gradually evolving into organelles within a single eukaryotic cell. Almost all eukaryotes also possess -- in varying degrees -- a complex cytoskeleton of microfibrils and microtubules which maintain the integrity of the cellular compartments and organelles, as well as a number of different types of internal membrane-bound structures with specialized functions.

With eukaryotes also came sexual reproduction, which opened up tremendous variability within a species through the shuffling of genes parents, as opposed to simple binary fission. This in turn changed the fundamental nature of evolution and genetic transmission. (For discussion of an alternate paradigm possibly applicable to early prokaryotes, see A Different Kind of Evolution.) Multicellularity also evolved in eukaryotes around 1.2 bya wich allowed for more specialisation and other evolutionary advantages.

Both prokaryotes and eukaryotes evolved in environments in which oxygen was scarce or absent. However, the diversification of eukaryotes seem to be linked to the rise in atmospheric oxygen during the Middle Proterozoic era. Perhaps it was at this time that many eukaryotes acquired mitochondria and chloroplasts, or perhaps the compartmentalized cell design of the eukaryotes was simply well suited to aerobic metabolism. The nature of the linkage remains a matter of speculation, and many eukaryotic forms retain an essentially anaerobic metabolism.

For the first two thirds or so of their history, eukaryotes remained unicellular. It was probably only in the Ediacaran Era that macroscopic multicellular life appeared. But that is another part of the story altogether. This section concerns the single-celled Eukarya, most of which have no fossil record.

Before proceeding, however, we recommend you view an animation used by biology students at Harvard. This eight minutes animation (you will need to either have or download Flash8). Called ""The Inner Life of the Cell""[1], you will see nuclei, proteins and lipids move with bug-like authority, slithering, gliding and twisting through 3D space. Stand aside Pixar, Nemo and friends were cute, but this rendering of the inner workings of a Eukaryotic cell is a stunning rendering of both the beauty and the complexity of life.

Eukarya - The Eukaryotes
Taxonomy phylogeny and hypothetical timeline (not to scale)
* Domain: EUKARYA
* Subdomain: "Protista"
* Subdomain: Metabionta
** Kingdom: Plantae
** Kingdom: Fungi
** Kingdom: Metazoa

ref. Whittaker & Margulis, 1978; Mayr 1990
Arch.Paleopr Mesopr  Neoproterozoic Phanerozoic

`--o Eukarya
   |--Metamonada ------------------------------
   `--+--Discicristata ------------------------
      `--+--Rhizaria --------------------------
         `--o Metabionta
            |--+--o Chromalveolata:
            |  |  |--Alveolata ----------------
            |  |  `--Chromista ----------------
            |  `--o Archaeplastida 
            |     |--Rhodophyta ---------------
            |     `--Chlorobionta  ------------
            `----------+--Amoebozoa  ----------
                       `--o Opisthokonta 
                             |--Fungi ---------
                             `--Metazoa -------

(See also Alternative Eukarya phylogeny)

Palaeos com page
Palaeos com - Eukarya

Credits: MAK020323, ATW040120 (with thanks to S. Connor for pointing out some problems in an earlier version), ATW041030, Palaeos org MAK060927

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