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University of Basel

05 March 2021

Researchers crack a puzzle of bacterial evolution

Illustration of bacteria swapping genes
Phylogenic trees built from bacterial genomes do not reflect ancestry but rather how frequently bacteria have exchanged genes. (Illustration: University of Basel, Biozentrum)

Phylogenetic trees map the evolution and ancestral relationships of organisms. At least that is the theory. Researchers at the University of Basel have now revealed that for many bacteria this theory is based on mistaken assumptions. These phylogenies are not a reliable indicator of common ancestry but rather reflect how extensively different bacteria have exchanged genes with each other. This finding implies that the theories of how bacterial genomes evolve need to be completely reconsidered.

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