National Geographic News
A man holds a snake.
All species, including these two eukaryotes, evolved from one ancestor, a new study seems to confirm.

Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty Images

Ker Than

for National Geographic News

Updated May 14, 2010 (first posted May 13, 2010)

All life on Earth evolved from a single-celled organism that lived roughly 3.5 billion years ago, a new study seems to confirm.

The study supports the widely held "universal common ancestor" theory first proposed by Charles Darwin more than 150 years ago.

(Pictures: "Seven Major 'Missing Links' Since Darwin.")

Using computer models and statistical methods, biochemist Douglas Theobald calculated the odds that all species from the three main groups, or "domains," of life evolved from a common ancestor—versus, say, descending from several different life-forms or arising in their present form, Adam and Eve style.

The domains are bacteria, bacteria-like microbes called Archaea, and eukaryotes, the group that includes plants and other multicellular species, such as humans.

The "best competing multiple ancestry hypothesis" has one species giving rise to bacteria and one giving rise to Archaea and eukaryotes, said Theobald, a biochemist at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

But, based on the new analysis, the odds of that are "just astronomically enormous," he said. "The number's so big, it's kind of silly to say it"—1 in 10 to the 2,680th power, or 1 followed by 2,680 zeros.

(Also see "Evolution Less Accepted in U.S. Than Other Western Countries, Study Finds.")

Theobald also tested the creationist idea that humans arose in their current form and have no evolutionary ancestors.

The statistical analysis showed that the independent origin of humans is "an absolutely horrible hypothesis," Theobald said, adding that the probability that humans were created separately from everything else is 1 in 10 to the 6,000th power.

(As of publication time, requests for interviews with several creationist scientists had been either declined or unanswered.)

(Related pictures: "Evolution vs. Intelligent Design: Six Bones of Contention.")

Putting Darwin to the Test

All species in all three domains share 23 universal proteins, though the proteins' DNA sequences—instructions written in the As, Cs, Gs, and Ts of DNA bases—differ slightly among the three domains (quick genetics overview).

The 23 universal proteins perform fundamental cellular activities, such as DNA replication and the translation of DNA into proteins, and are crucial to the survival of all known life-forms—from the smallest microbes to blue whales.

A universal common ancestor is generally assumed to be the reason the 23 proteins are as similar as they are, Theobald said.

That's because, if the original protein set was the same for all creatures, a relatively small number of mutations would have been needed to arrive at the modern proteins, he said. If life arose from multiple species—each with a different set of proteins—many more mutations would have been required.

But Theobald hoped to go beyond conventional wisdom.

"What I wanted to do was not make the assumption that similar traits imply a shared ancestry ... because we know that's not always true," Theobald said.

"For instance, you could get similarities that are not due to common ancestry but that are due to natural selection"—that is, when environmental forces, such as predators or climate, result in certain mutations taking hold, such as claws or thicker fur.

Biologists call the independent development of similar traits in different lineages "convergent evolution." The wings of bats, birds, and insects are prime examples: They perform similar functions but evolved independently of one another.

But it's highly unlikely that the protein groups would have independently evolved into such similar DNA sequences, according to the new study, to be published tomorrow in the journal Nature.

"I asked, What's the probability that I would see a human DNA polymerase [protein] sequence and another protein with an E. coli DNA polymerase sequence?" he explained.

"It turns out that probability is much higher if you use the hypothesis that [humans and E. coli] are actually related."

(Related: "Future Humans: Four Ways We May, or May Not, Evolve.")

No Special Treatment for Evolutionary Theory?

David Penny, an evolutionary biologist at Massey University in New Zealand, called the grand scope of Theobald's study "bold."

Penny had been part of a similar, but more narrowly focused, study in the 1980s. His team had looked at shared proteins in mammals and concluded that different mammalian species are likely descended from a common ancestor.

Testing the theory of universal common ancestry is important, because biologists should question their major tenets just as scientists in other fields do, said Penny, who wasn't part of the new study.

"Evolution," he said, "should not be given any special status."

Editor's note: Two corrections have been made to this article. In the first sentence "million" has been changed to "billion." In the seventh paragraph, "10 followed by 2,680 zeros" has been changed to "1 followed by 2,680 zeros." Many thanks to readers for pointing out these typos.

More: "Was Darwin Wrong?" from National Geographic magazine >>

Charles Mananes
Charles Mananes

It's funny that scientists haven't even wondered why evolve at all. Isn't the purpose of evolving is to achieve perfection in order to survive? Single celled organisms that presumably were the first organisms still exist today. Shouldn't these have already died out by now if it hasn't achieved perfection? Isn't that the reason why other supposed subhumans have become extinct?

Richard  Hogan
Richard Hogan

It's interesting that the author of this article supposedly calculated the odds for two different alternative theories for how we got here, and shares those odds with the reader - both turn out to be infinitesimal. The third option, which he accepts as the truth, is Darwin's theory. For some strange reason, he either neglected to calculate those odds, or failed to share them. Maybe ALL of the options, including Darwinian Gradualism are improbable to the "Nth degree" (?).

Of course he need not calculate the "odds" that all life on earth is descended from a common ancestor, since he believes that theory is "fact". That means no calculations are required!

Edward Dossor
Edward Dossor

The universe, let alone the earth, isn't old enough to have even allowed for the formation of even a little finger. And that would have to be at a rate of one cell per year in perfectly ordered sequence. Anyone who devoutly hails evolution as the only possible answer doesn't realize that all this is supposed to have happened on the earth in the last 4.5 billion years. Learn how to count you ignorant blatherskites!! Stop trying to justify belief in something which defies the laws of very basic numeracy. The size of the universe is utterly irrelevant because over 90% of it is unaccounted for dark matter and the universe started off with a huge explosion which was immensely hot guaranteeing sterilization of every possible tinge of life that may have pre-existed (although there was obviously no physical life before the big bang. The majority of the known universe, although cooled down now after billions of years, is inhospitable to life. Let alone the orderly and very comfortable formation of it. Evolution doesn't make sense. Mathematically. Scientifically. Numerically. Or Chronologically

Jonathan Sousa
Jonathan Sousa

To say that "the probability that humans were created separately from everything else is 1 in 10 to the 6,000th power" is to say that miraculous creation is impossible because it is miraculous. If you talk about creation at all, you have to admit that you are talking about something beyond natural law.

God created not only life but every system and process that it contains. He created natural law, designing every circle of life and every ability to adapt that we see. Similarity is not proof of evolutionary process, it is proof of similarity. Similarity is evidence of his design.

Gregory George
Gregory George

At least Bacteria eat Us when we die.

And Bacteria live inside of Us.  

Hurry up,   kinfolk,   I am home!

Where did you get those Proteins?

Riaz Ahmed
Riaz Ahmed

Single cell organisms have a distinct survival advantage over sexual organisms, in that they have to have or find a mate to reproduce!  So if ALL life started off as single cells reproducing asexually then there is absolutely no way it would evolve to human beings even animals.  The reason is that science says evolution is a result of survival of the fittest, those mutations that result in advantages in survival are those that persist and evolve further.

So in the very basic stage of "evolution" asexually organisms would have a distinct advantage over mutated organisms that require a sexual partner.  So why would the sexual organisms evolve further.... They wouldnt,  they never did, they would just "evolve" into more complex asexual organisms.

Imagine if you had a vehicle that made its own petrol and you could drive it non stop why would you replace it with a vehicle that needs to stop repeatedly and fill up (i.e it NEEDS third party petrol to continue)

What are the chances that a simple ASEXUAL organism mutates within the same lifespan/generation into two PERFECTLY coupled organisms that have the exact required components to facilitate reproduction together?  It isnt really feasible.

So scientifically evolution doesnt make sense.  Religiously evolution is not considered true either, so most probably it just isnt true..

Jack Peppers
Jack Peppers

Well if this theory is true then how did the first single cell organism create itself? There is no possible way for that to happen in the physical realm, life creates life.

Bob Biological
Bob Biological

@Jonathan Sousa  Prove it. There have thousands of gods worshiped over the centuries by many different cultures across the globe. Ignorant, gullible, weak minds and weak hearts always seek god when the answers are not yet evident, it's seems easier to appease ones fears than to simply say we do not yet know the answers.

Travis Dykes RN
Travis Dykes RN

@Riaz Ahmed  Actually sexual reproduction provides benefits over asexual selection in lots of instances due to the recombination of genetic information leading to more variability and a higher chance of surviving varied environments.  Additionally, you see organisms like yeast that can reproduce both asexually and sexually and due so based on which environments they are in.

Bob Biological
Bob Biological

@Jack Peppers  "There is no possible way for that to happen in the physical realm"

That's an interesting statement, but I think it would be more accurate to state "we don't know as of yet how it happened". 

You somehow think that it is impossible for a single celled organism to come into being by some natural unknown process, yet have no problem believing that some all powerful, all knowing, magical entity that has always existed and had no creator. So who's jumping to wild conclusions here simply because we don't yet know all the answer or have all the pieces to the puzzle?

If you think about it the "Ancient Alien Theory" probably holds more weight than some magical invisible entity held by those that will believe anything to appease their fears. 

Abiogenesis is still being researched but until we have more answers how about you explain to me how "magic" produces a biology.

Cell Movie
Cell Movie

@Jack Peppers Thats the same question as who created the creator....based on a god creates all living things model.

Its a chicken and egg question ....billions of years and some stuff that many of us will never work out made these evolve then mutate into the many living creatures on earth. Science shows in very easy terms many stages of evolution how we and all living creates adapt over time to our surroundings.


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