Thermophiles in the Tree of Life

Tree of Life
Yellowstone’s hot springs contain species from the circled groups on this Tree of Life.

Drawing by Mary Ann Franke


Yellowstone's hot springs contain species from the circled groups on this Tree of Life. Jack Farmer conceived of this version of the tree of life, which first appeared in GSA Today, July 2000 (used with permission).

In the last few decades, microbial research has led to a revised tree of life, far different from the one taught before. The new tree combines animal, plant, and fungi in one branch. The other two branches consist solely of microorganisms, including an entire branch of microorganisms not known until the 1970s—Archaea.

Dr. Carl Woese first proposed this "tree" in the 1970s. He also proposed the new branch, Archaea, which includes many microorganisms formerly considered bacteria. The red line links the earliest organisms that evolved from a common ancestor. These are all hyperthermophiles, which thrive in water above 176°F (80°C), indicating life may have arisen in hot environments on the young Earth.

Relevance to Yellowstone

Among the earliest organisms to evolve on Earth were microorganisms whose descendants are found today in extreme high-temperature, and in some cases acidic, environments, such as those in Yellowstone. Their history exhibits principles of ecology and ways in which geologic processes might have influenced biological evolution.


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Last updated: August 21, 2017

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