Shaking up the tree of life

A new study of giant viruses supports the idea that viruses are ancient living organisms and not inanimate molecular remnants run amok, as some scientists have argued. The study may reshape the universal family tree, adding a fourth major branch to the three that most scientists agree represent the fundamental domains of life.

The new findings appear in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology.

In a nutshell, research looking at protein folds to determine evolutionary progress found that many of the most ancient protein folds, like those found in most cellular organisms, were also present in the giant viruses. This suggests that these viruses appeared quite early in evolution, near the root of the tree of life. The new analysis adds to the evidence that giant viruses were originally much more complex than they are today and experienced a dramatic reduction in their genomes over time

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