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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • List the unifying characteristics of eukaryotes
  • Describe what scientists know about the origins of eukaryotes based on the last common ancestor
  • Explain endosymbiotic theory

Living things fall into three large groups: Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya. The first two have prokaryotic cells, and the third contains all eukaryotes. A relatively sparse fossil record is available to help discern what the first members of each of these lineages looked like, so it is possible that all the events that led to the last common ancestor of extant eukaryotes will remain unknown. However, comparative biology of extant organisms and the limited fossil record provide some insight into the history of Eukarya.

The earliest fossils found appear to be Bacteria, most likely cyanobacteria. They are about 3.5 billion years old and are recognizable because of their relatively complex structure and, for prokaryotes, relatively large cells. Most other prokaryotes have small cells, 1 or 2 µm in size, and would be difficult to pick out as fossils. Most living eukaryotes have cells measuring 10 µm or greater. Structures this size, which might be fossils, appear in the geological record about 2.1 billion years ago.

Characteristics of eukaryotes

Data from these fossils have led comparative biologists to the conclusion that living eukaryotes are all descendants of a single common ancestor. Mapping the characteristics found in all major groups of eukaryotes reveals that the following characteristics must have been present in the last common ancestor, because these characteristics are present in at least some of the members of each major lineage.

  1. Cells with nuclei surrounded by a nuclear envelope with nuclear pores. This is the single characteristic that is both necessary and sufficient to define an organism as a eukaryote. All extant eukaryotes have cells with nuclei.
  2. Mitochondria. Some extant eukaryotes have very reduced remnants of mitochondria in their cells, whereas other members of their lineages have “typical” mitochondria.
  3. A cytoskeleton containing the structural and motility components called actin microfilaments and microtubules. All extant eukaryotes have these cytoskeletal elements.
  4. Flagella and cilia, organelles associated with cell motility. Some extant eukaryotes lack flagella and/or cilia, but they are descended from ancestors that possessed them.
  5. Chromosomes, each consisting of a linear DNA molecule coiled around basic (alkaline) proteins called histones. The few eukaryotes with chromosomes lacking histones clearly evolved from ancestors that had them.
  6. Mitosis, a process of nuclear division wherein replicated chromosomes are divided and separated using elements of the cytoskeleton. Mitosis is universally present in eukaryotes.
  7. Sex, a process of genetic recombination unique to eukaryotes in which diploid nuclei at one stage of the life cycle undergo meiosis to yield haploid nuclei and subsequent karyogamy, a stage where two haploid nuclei fuse together to create a diploid zygote nucleus.
  8. Members of all major lineages have cell walls, and it might be reasonable to conclude that the last common ancestor could make cell walls during some stage of its life cycle. However, not enough is known about eukaryotes’ cell walls and their development to know how much homology exists among them. If the last common ancestor could make cell walls, it is clear that this ability must have been lost in many groups.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Ucd bis2a intro to biology v1.2. OpenStax CNX. Sep 22, 2015 Download for free at https://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11890/1.1
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