In the seventeenth century, Antoine von Leeuwenhook used a simple microscope to discover that we live within a previously undetected microbial world containing an enormously diverse population of creatures. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century brought advances in microbial culture techniques and in biochemistry, uncovering the roles that microbes play in all aspects of our world, from causing disease to modulating geochemical cycles. In the last 25 years, molecular biology has revealed the complexity and pervasiveness of the microbial world and its importance for understanding the interactions that maintain living systems on the planet. The paper by Preston et al. (1) in this issue of the Proceedings provides a clear illustration of the power of these molecular techniques to describe new biological relationships and to pose important questions about the mechanisms that drive evolution. The analysis of ribosomal RNA gene sequences is one molecular approach that has radically altered our view of microbial diversity. Its application can be extended and expedited by the use of PCR. The confluence of these techniques has stimulated the rapid assembly of sequence information from homologues rRNA gene regions derived from virtually all classes of organisms. The data collected thus far support the scheme first presented by Woese et al. (2), which holds that the relationships among organisms can be summarized in the form of a universal phylogenetic tree comprised of one eukaryotic and two prokaryotic domains: the Eucarya, the Bacteria, and the Archaea (Fig. 1).
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