Eukaryotic Origins

Organisms are classified into three domains: Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya. The first two lineages comprise all prokaryotic cells, and the third contains all eukaryotes. A very sparse fossil record prevents us from determining 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 (living) organisms and the limited fossil record provide some insight into the evolution of Eukarya.

The earliest fossils found appear to be those of domain Bacteria, most likely cyanobacteria. They are about 3.5 to 3.8 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. Fossil stromatolites suggest that at least some prokaryotes lived in interactive communities, and evidence from the structure of living eukaryotic cells suggests that it was similar ancestral interactions that gave rise to the eukaryotes. Most living eukaryotes have cells measuring 10 µm or greater. Structures this size, which might be fossilized remains of early eukaryotes, appear in the geological record in deposits dating to about 2.1 billion years ago.

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