The driving force in evolving cellular life on Earth, says Carl Woese, a microbiologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been horizontal gene transfer, in which the acquisition of alien cellular components, including genes and proteins, work to promote the evolution of recipient cellular entities.
Woese presents his theory of cellular evolution, which challenges long-held traditions and beliefs of biologists, in the June 18 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Cellular evolution, he argues, began in a communal environment in which the loosely organized cells took shape through extensive horizontal gene transfer. Such a transfer previously had been recognized as having a minor role in evolution, but the arrival of microbial genomics, Woese says, is shedding a more accurate light. Horizontal gene transfer, he argues, has the capacity to rework entire genomes. With simple primitive entities this process can "completely erase an organismal genealogical trace."
His theory challenges the longstanding Darwinian assumption known as the Doctrine of Common Descent that all life on Earth has descended from one original primordial form.
"We cannot expect to explain cellular evolution if we stay locked in the classical Darwinian mode of thinking," Woese said. "The time has come for biology to go beyond the Doctrine of Common Descent."
"Neither it nor any variation of it can capture the tenor, the dynamic, the essence of the evolutionary process that spawned cellular organization," Woese wrote in his paper.