Reviewer's report 1
W. Ford Doolittle, Dalhousie University
Fond as I am of many of Dr. Koonin's imaginative ideas, I'm not so keen on this one. My reasons are three-fold.
First, Koonin et al. acknowledge that HGT among and between viruses and hosts is one of the major forces in the evolution of their genomes. Their viral hallmark genes have had plenty of opportunity in the last three-four billion years to make their way into one or another host genome. That they have not done so must mean that the proteins they encode are of no use to hosts. And if they are of no use to hosts, then that in itself is sufficient explanation for their exclusive presence in viruses. It is irrelevant to the question of how long these genes have been associated with viruses.
Author response: Certainly, this is an ingenious and pertinent argument. However, matters are not quite so simple. Firstly, it is not absolutely true that cellular life forms have not recruited viral hallmark genes for their own purposes. A clear counterexample (it is discussed in the present paper but I will rehash the issue in brief) is the telomerase, a reverse transcriptase that apparently has been acquired by an ancestral eukaryote from a mobile retroelement and employed in an essential eukaryotic function, the replication of chromosomal ends. Let us note the pattern here: reverse transcriptase is a hallmark of the virus world that is common in both prokaryotic and eukaryotic selfish elements but performs an essential cellular function in eukaryotes only. It is hard to deny that this pattern is strongly suggestive of the origin of the gene in question within the virus world, with subsequent recruitment for the cellular function (telomerase) in eukaryotes. Granted, this is an exception. Most of the viral hallmark genes, indeed, are amiss from cellular life forms, which does seem to suggests that they are of no use to cells or might even be deleterious. In some cases, e.g., the JRC, this is understandable (cells do not need capsids), in others, the reasons remain mysterious, e.g., S3H. However, is exclusive presence of these genes in a broad variety of viruses (and this is how the hallmark genes are defined), indeed, irrelevant for the antiquity of their association with viruses? Certainly, the hallmark genes must have entered the virus world by one route or another, whenever that might have happened, time-wise. If the source of these genes was not the primordial gene pool, they must have come from genomes of cellular organisms. That means that these genes, at some time, have been of some use to cellular organisms. It seems extremely far fetched to suppose that, after being acquired by a virus, these genes all of a sudden became useless for cells. A different, probably, more viable version of a late, cellular origin of the hallmark genes might be considered (as, indeed, pointed out by Doolittle in the second part of his comment). This alternative involves acquisition of the progenitor of a hallmark gene from a cellular genome by a particular virus accompanied by a dramatic acceleration of evolution caused by the functional alteration. The gene, then, would sweep the viral world. The assumption here is that there is a set of functional constraints that is common to a variety of viruses. This seems to be plausible for some of the hallmark genes but not others, e.g., it does stand to reason that the capsids have common design even in very different viruses but, in the cases of S3H or the primase, a viral common denominator hardly can be gleaned, which does not bode well for the HGT scenario. We continue with this line of reasoning in our response to Doolittle's second point.
Second, and again, Koonin et al. acknowledge the role of HGT between viral "lineages" in the evolution of their genomes. The presence of genes in diverse viruses, though consistent with their presence in some LUCAV or primordial gene pool, is not proof of it. These genes could have arisen in one lineage and been transferred to others. By "arisen" I mean evolved so dramatically away from whatever viral or host function they used to perform that we can no longer detect the relationship. This headlong erasing-all-traces-of-the-past phase would have eased up before the born-again genes began their inter-viral odyssey, explaining the "conservation of the hallmark proteins in extremely diverse classes of viruses with widely different replication/expression strategies." Koonin et al. dismiss the HGT scenario because of "the extremely distant similarity between the hallmark proteins from diverse virus groups". But they are not so extremely distant that their homology is undetectable by sequence, and no one says the HGTs have to have been recent. Koonin would not, I think, argue that the extreme dissimilarity (homology not detectable by sequence) of many eukaryotic proteins to any in prokaryotes argues for their primordial pre-cellular origin.
Author response: This point is very closely related to the first one and their separation might be somewhat arbitrary. Nevertheless, we follow the structure of Doolittle's argument and respond separately. First of all, let us notice that, beyond any doubt, HGT is an extremely important aspect of viral evolution. Not only do not we deny the role of HGT but, on the contrary, we emphasize that HGT is the glue that holds the virus world together. Furthermore, it is likely that the currently observed distribution of the hallmark genes among viruses has been affected by HGT. However, we still maintain that HGT is not the preferred and, indeed, not a good explanation at all for the general pattern of that distribution. We attempted to present the arguments in this article but let us consolidate them here. 1. The distant similarity between the versions of the hallmark genes in diverse viral lineages suggests the ancient spread of these genes in the virus world. However, we must agree with Doolittle that ancient here does not necessarily equal primordial. 2. The essentiality of the functions of the hallmark genes is not well compatible with HGT being the principal mode of their dissemination over the virus world. Indeed, a question seems inevitable: HGT of a hallmark to what? Without the given hallmark gene, e.g., the JRC or the RdRp, there would be no competent recipient virus. Thus, the HGT scenario necessarily would involve displacement of ancestral genes with the same function, e. g., of a rod-shaped capsid protein gene by the JRC gene or of a gene for a DNA polymerase with the RCRE gene. Such displacements are not impossible in principle but some will turn out to be awkward when the pre-existing viral replication machinery is poorly suited to accommodate the newcomer. More importantly, what kind of virus world does this translate into? Seemingly, one with perpetual displacement of essential genes as a result of rampant HGT. Where would these essential genes come from in the first place? They would be there as long as viruses exist – suspiciously similar to the model of the virus world discussed in this paper. 3. The conservation of the hallmark genes between prokaryotic and eukaryotic viruses seems to be another telltale sign of primordial origin of these genes. We are unaware of any extensive gene movements between prokaryotic and eukaryotic viruses in modern times. However, at some point(s) in the past, such exchanges must have happened, and as discussed in this paper, the epoch of eukaryogenesis seems to be the most likely period for these events to occur (the second "melting pot" of virus evolution). Should that be the case, the spread of hallmark genes across the virus world is at least as old as the eukaryotes. However, that is a completely unrealistic upper bound because the hallmark genes must have been already contained in bacteriophage genomes in order to contribute to the emergence of the eukaryotic viruses. Taking the reasonable uniformitarian approach to bacterial evolution, we are justified to deduce that the prevalence of the hallmark genes in the virus world is as old as bacteria. From there, it is but a small – though not necessarily easy, given that uniformitarianism is hardly applicable here, – step back to the primordial gene pool.
The final point on this second comment of Doolittle is about eukaryotes and whether or not we would take the existence of eukaryotic proteins without detectable prokaryotic homologs (or with extremely distant homologs) as evidence of a primordial, pre-cellular emergence of eukaryotes. Surely, we won't although it is notable that others make this argument quite earnestly (perhaps, not exactly pre-cellular origin of eukaryotes but, definitely, a distinct, primordial eukaryotic lineage – see
]and references therein). The difference from the situation with viruses is clear and straightforward: it is demonstrable in many cases and seems highly plausible in others that emergence of novel eukaryotic functions entails major acceleration of the evolution of the genes that were inherited from prokaryotes but were exapted for these novel functions (the cytoskeleton and the ubiquitin system are obvious cases in point). Once emerged, the novel, eukaryote-specific cellular structures were rapidly fixed and then changed minimally throughout the evolution of eukaryotes. Thus the acceleration of evolution was dramatic but very brief, explaining the chasm between highly conserved, pan-eukaryotic proteins and their (sometimes, barely recognizable) prokaryotic progenitors. In our view, this is, by far, a simpler, better explanation of the observed pattern than any claim of a "new entity", let it be cellular or pre-cellular. The case of viruses is in a stark contrast: no pan-viral genes, no perceptible set of common functional constraints across diverse viral lineages (with some possible exceptions like JRC), hence no basis for rapid acceleration upon the entrance of a hallmark gene into the viral world followed by fixation in the new functional niche and the accompanying, equally dramatic deceleration of evolution. In a sense, this is the crux of our argument: viral hallmark genes are altogether a different lot from the sets of conserved pan-eukaryotic genes (or pan-archaeal, or pan-bacterial ones). Hence a qualitatively different evolutionary scenario is called for, and we try to step up to the plate in this paper
Third, I totally agree with Koonin et al. that the habitual dismissal of an early viral origin "on the grounds that all extant viruses are intracellular parasites" is jejune by any standards, and that virus-like entities surely predated the appearance of modern cells. But today's viruses do not have to descend directly – in the sense that any of their genes descend directly – from these entities. Adam's sins are not my sins, even though I'm pretty sure the lineage of sinning is unbroken.
Author response: It is important that we agree on the antiquity of virus-like entities and (presumably) their importance in the evolution of life from the get go. We also do not disagree on the possibility that today's viruses have nothing to do with those of old. What we do disagree about is the conception that this possibility is as realistic as the alternative outlined in this paper, namely, that the major lineages of modern viruses derive directly from the primordial, pre-cellular gene pool. Not only is there no shred of evidence in support of the presumed sweep of new genes over the virus world but there are (we believe) substantial arguments against specific scenarios that must be developed to make such a sweep credible. These arguments are summarized in the paper and in our responses to Doolittle's first two points. Thus, we believe that the origin of the viral hallmark genes and several major lineages of viruses directly from the primordial gene pool is the simplest explanation of the patterns discovered by comparative genomics of viruses, and this scenario shows strong synergy with specific models of cell evolution. The epistemological status of this conclusion is briefly considered below.
All that said, I don't disfavor publication of this ms. Evolutionary scenarios are an artform. They usefully exercise the brain, causing us to look at old data in new ways and stimulating us to collect new data. They do not have to be true!
Author response: It might be wise to refrain from an explicit philosophical discussion and simply take this last statement of Doolittle as a legitimate opinion which it is. However, we strongly (inasmuch as the very notion of a "strong disagreement" is still relevant in post-postmodern philosophy) disagree with this agnostic stance (which we take as being serious rather than ironic) and think that this outlook does not help studies of early evolution. To be more explicit, we do not accept that "evolutionary scenarios are an artform" but rather contend that this is a distinct and important area of research within the general domain of historical sciences, such as evolutionary biology and cosmology. These scenarios do not have to be true, i. e., they do not have to be and never can be precise, proven accounts of the events that actually happened, but have to be earnest and defendable attempts on attaining an approximation of the truth that is, at least in some aspects, closer than previously available approximations. That is, we believe, the justification of research into such scenarios rather than the benefits of intellectual workout that accompanies these efforts.
Presumably, the notion that evolutionary scenarios are not a form of science stems, primarily, from the apparent lack of Popperian falsifiability for these concepts. There is, however, a lot to say about the status of such scenarios vis-à-vis the Popperian model of science and about the validity of that model and its applicability, especially, in the domain of historical sciences. First of all, the notion that evolutionary scenarios are unfalsifiable needs to be clarified. There are specific, falsifiable predictions in any evolutionary scenario worth its salt. To use an obvious example from the present work, Omnis virus e virus is an important part of our general concept of viral evolution, and it can be falsified by the discovery of a clear case of the origin of a virus from escaped genes. It is true that the scenarios are not falsifiable in their entirety, and neither is any historical narrative (the same applies to many generalizations of non-historical sciences – indeed, it is quite dubious that a general Popperian model of science is realistic – see, e.g., Godfrey-Smith, Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science). We believe that, in general, the verificationist framework is more relevant as the epistemological foundation of the research into fundamental aspects of early evolution. More specifically, we think that the "complete evidence" approach (more or less, sensu Carnap), i.e., convergence (consilience) of various lines of evidence, none of which might be compelling in itself, has the potential of rendering some scenarios of early evolution substantially more likely than others – on some occasions, to such an extent that they closely approach the status of "truth". Again, these scenarios should and do include specific falsifiable hypotheses but the validity of the construct as a whole can only be established in terms of likelihood and only by synthesis of a multitude of evidence. An obvious example is the "RNA World" – an extremely bold generalization on early stages of life's evolution but one that is, by now, more or less universally accepted, on the strength of converging evidence on the activities of RNA in modern life forms, ribozyme chemistry, and the logic of evolution. In this paper, we tried to show the convergence of widely different lines of evidence that make the concept of the ancient virus world a plausible one.
Reviewer's report 2
J. Peter Gogarten, University of Connecticut
The manuscript by Koonin et a. describes a scenario for virus evolution that links the origin of virus to the early evolution and origin of cells. In particular, the authors suggest that viruses and phages are descendents of selfish genetic elements that were already present before the evolution of cells and genomes. The argument is based on the wide, but not universal, distribution of viral "signature" genes, and agrees with hypercycle models of early molecular evolution that showed that these early networks are prone to infection by molecular parasites. The basic hypothesis presented in this manuscript is reasonable, well developed and provides a good alternative to the scenarios that describe virus' origins as genes escaped from cellular organisms.
The manuscript treats the early evolution of viruses as a speculative topic. Given that evolution is traced back to the origin of cells, this might appear justified; however, I find the article more speculative than necessary. The authors link virus origins to one particular model of cellular origins and early evolution, the authors chose the scenarios by Martin, Muller, and Russell (see my references 1 & 2). This leads to unnecessarily detailed speculation. These models made an important contribution in detailing possible pathways to cellular life and towards the eukaryotic cell, but many alternative syntrophic relationships at the root of the eukaryotes were suggested, for examples see my refs. 3–6. Furthermore, some details of the scenario followed in this manuscript have been debated in the past (e.g., molecular phylogenies do not indicate a close relationship between eukaryotes and methanogenes); an RNA based genome might not necessarily be less complex, because early RNA polymerases were inferred to be error correcting (see my ref. 7); and the assumptions that the authors make for the most recent common ancestor of bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes contradict much of what was learned about early evolution during the previous decades: Molecular evidence points towards energy coupling membranes being already present in the MRCA of all known life (see discussion in my ref. 8). Apparently, the MRCA of all known cellular organisms was not devoid of membranes, but already had a complex targeting machinery for membrane proteins (my ref. 9), terminal oxidases (my ref. 10 and Simonetta Gribaldo, pers. communication) and ATP synthases driven by transmembrane electricochemical ion gradients (my ref. 11). All of these systems apparently predated the MRCA of all known cellular organism. The idea of a primitive, pre-cellular common ancestor dates back to the first molecular trees of life, when Fox and Woese concluded that this organism might have been a progenote, i.e. an organism without a tight coupling between geno- and phenotype (my refs. 12 & 13). While a pre-cellular organism with a distributed, communal genome likely was a stage in early cellular evolution, molecular evidence suggests that at the time of the organismal MRCA cellular structures were much more advances than envisioned in the scenario described by the authors. Horizontal gene transfer complicates a simple back extrapolation, but the molecular phylogenies of ATP synthases, elongation factors, ribosomes and signal recognition proteins are in surprising agreement, suggesting that with few recognizable exceptions, the genes in question were transferred only between closely related organisms. One way to arrive at a more primitive MRCA of the three domains is to place the root of the tree of life on the eukaryotic branch as suggested by Forterre and collaborators (my ref. 14). However, several shared derived characters of ATPases (my ref. 15) and elongation factors (my ref. 16) suggest that the root is located outside the clade comprised by the archaea and the eukaryotic nucleocytoplasm.
A frequent argument in favor of a pre-cellular MRCA, also invoked in the present manuscript, is based on the different lipid and cell wall composition of archaea, bacteria and eukaryotes. I think this is a red herring: All three domains synthesize isoprenoids (and while some of the enzymes are different between the two domains, the pathway as a whole and some of the enzymes appear to be homologous) (my refs. 17 & 18); furthermore, all cells use polyprenols like dolichol to transport sugars through membranes (either as activated cell wall precursors or for glycosilation reactions inside the ER or in the periplasmic space), indicating that the ability to synthesize long chain branched aliphatic alcohols was around early; and S-layer proteins are considered by some as the likely ancestral cell wall material (my ref. 19). If the ester linked fatty acid based membrane lipids were a later bacterial invention, it would not be surprising to find this pathway also in eukaryotes, because all known eukaryotes apparently evolved from ancestors that once possessed mitochondria (my ref. 20).
While I do not agree with some of the details of the described scenario for cellular evolution, these details are not crucial to the central thesis of the manuscript (there is no arrow in figure that connects the MRCA of all life and the bacterial and archaeal MRCAs to the virus world). The proposed hypothesis on the origin of viruses depends only on the presence of a progenote stage in early evolution, regardless whether this stage was part of the "stem" leading to the organismal MRCA, or whether this stage was reached independently by the lineages leading to the archaeal and bacterial domains.
Author response:We agree with Gogarten that our concept of the ancient virus world does not critically depend on the nature of LUCA (MRCA of all modern cells); what is actually required is an advanced, diverse pre-cellular pool of genetic elements. Indeed, this is a useful point to make and we do so explicitly in the revised manuscript. It might be useful to note that the pre-cellular stage of evolution in our model does not seem to be the progenote (Woese, Fox, 1977, J. Mol. Evol. 10: 1–6) in the original sense because that latter was supposed to possess a primitive, imprecise translation system which would not work for the level of pre-cellular complexity envisaged here.
Since the nature of LUCA is not central here, it is not the place to present the argument for a pre-cellular LUCA that has been discussed previously
]and, more briefly, in this paper. Just in a nutshell: we do not believe that the use of non-homologous pathways for lipid biosynthesis by archaea and bacteria is a "red herring"; on the contrary, it is a major conundrum in need of a solution. Yes, all bacteria do synthesize isoprenoids, and some of them do so with the use of the archaeal enzymatic machinery, probably, acquired via HGT. Whether or not the classical bacterial pathway of isoprenoid biosynthesis derives from a common ancestor with the archaeal pathway is a more complex matter. What is important, however, is that bacteria never use isoprenoids to build their membranes. So the notion of a cellular LUCA would require displacement of the ancestral, archaeal-type, isoprenoid-based membrane by the newly emerged, bacterial-type fatty-acid-based membrane, without elimination of the isoprenoid biosynthesis pathway that would then serve other functions (as they do in modern bacteria). Not an impossible scenario in itself but a mechanistically challenging one, and with the underlying selective forces utterly mysterious
Gogarten responds in a second review: I fail to see a mechanistic challenge. To a large extent lipids based on fatty acids, long chain alcohols, and even non-biogenic lipids, for example extracted from the Murchison meteorite (my ref. 21), appear mechanistically equivalent.
Author response:However, the lipid argument is not the only one for a non-cellular LUCA. The lack of homology between the core components of the DNA replication machineries in archaea and bacteria, which implies a fragmented RNA genome in LUCA, is equally important. This effectively rules out accurate genome segregation and does not bode well for a cellular LUCA at all. We certainly do not claim to "know" what LUCA was like but we do perceive the non-cellular model discussed in
]to be the current solution of choice
Gogarten responds in a second review: Even an RNA based genome might have been less fragmented than assumed (see above), furthermore the lack of perceived sequence homology between the bacterial and archaeal/eucaryal DNA replication machinery could be due to divergence, not lack of shared ancestry. Functionally the processes and sub-processes in the replication fork are very similar in all three domains of life, which seems to be difficult to explain by convergent evolution.
Alternative explanations for the features that were used to argue for a non-cellular MRCA exist; in contrast, the findings that indicate a cellular MRCA of the three domains (e.g., the machineries used in chemiosmotic coupling, and for the targeting of membrane proteins apparently predate the MRCA of the three domains, see above) at present have not been reconciled with a non-cellular entity. Therefore, at present a pre-cellular MRCA of the three domains (LUCA) appears at odds with the available data. I do not perceive this scenario as the solution of choice.
Gogarten first review continues: Other suggestion:
Add additional citations: To me the idea that virus and phage evolution began early in the evolution of life appears very reasonable, and I would be surprised if others had not formulated similar ideas in the past.
Author response: We believe that the notion of the virus world as explicated here is new. The idea of a primordial origin of virus-like entities, of course, is old, even if unpopular lately (at least prior to the work of the Bamford group on the JRC structure in diverse viruses and the discovery of the mimivirus – all this is cited here). We cite the classic textbook of Luria and Darnell
]which offers an insightful discussion of the early ideas in this area. In the revision, we added the citation of Felix D'Herelle's 1922 book which is where the idea that viruses might precede cells in evolution, probably, was proposed for the first time
Gogarten responds in a second review: The addition of the D'Herelle citation is an excellent choice, the following might be interesting as well, it seems more similar to the ideas developed in the manuscript: According to Sapp (my ref. 22) the idea of early co-existence of viruses and cells was expressed by Peter Raven in a letter to R. E. Buchanan on November 3, 1970 "Raven suggested that viruses, probably as old as life itself, might be regarded as by-products of bacterial reproduction, in which segments of DNA or RNA protected with protein coats spread from cell to cell, directing the host cell's metabolism to reproduce more of the viral DNA or RNA."
Gogarten's first review continues: Section on "The primordial gene pool: the crucible of the major virus lineages", last paragraph: Why would the transfer need to be rampant? The connection to a non-cellular model for early evolution could be better developed. Pre-cells, or cells with small, possibly partial genomes (my ref. 23) should do just fine for the indicated stages, as long as there is a moderate level of transfer allowing for recombination and for molecular parasites to evolve.
Author response: We softened this statement in the revision. Still, to account for the observed spread of the hallmark genes, gene trafficking between different types of genetic elements must have been much more intense than anything observed in modern life forms, and we suspect that a moderate level of transfer between cellular entities won't do.
Reviewer's report 2: reference list
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2. Martin W, Muller M: The hydrogen hypothesis for the first eukaryote. Nature 1998, 392(6671):37–41.
3. Searcy DG: Origins of mitochondria and chloroplasts from sulfur based symbiosis. In: The Origin and Evolution of the Cell. Edited by Hartman H, Matsuno, K.: World Scientific; 1992: 47–78.
4. Margulis L: Symbiosis in Cell Evolution: Microbial Communities in the Archean and Proterozoic Eons, 2nd edn: W H Freeman & Co; 1995.
5. Searcy DG: Metabolic integration during the evolutionary origin of mitochondria. Cell Res 2003, 13(4):229–238.
6. Lopez-Garcia P, Moreira D: Metabolic symbiosis at the origin of eukaryotes. Trends Biochem Sci 1999, 24(3):88–93.
7. Poole AM, Logan DT: Modern mRNA proofreading and repair: clues that the last universal common ancestor possessed an RNA genome? Mol Biol Evol 2005, 22(6):1444–1455.
8. Gogarten JP, Taiz L: Evolution of proton pumping ATPases: Rooting the tree of life. Photosynthesis Research 1992, 33:137–146.
9. Gribaldo S, Cammarano P: The root of the universal tree of life inferred from anciently duplicated genes encoding components of the protein-targeting machinery. Journal Of Molecular Evolution 1998, 47(5):508–516.
10. Castresana J, Lubben M, Saraste M, Higgins DG: Evolution of cytochrome oxidase, an enzyme older than atmospheric oxygen. Embo J 1994, 13(11):2516–2525.
11. Gogarten JP, Kibak H, Dittrich P, Taiz L, Bowman EJ, Bowman BJ, Manolson MF, Poole RJ, Date T, Oshima T et al: Evolution of the vacuolar H+-ATPase: implications for the origin of eukaryotes. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 1989, 86(17):6661–6665.
12. Woese CR, Fox GE: Phylogenetic structure of the prokaryotic domain: the primary kingdoms. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 1977, 74(11):5088–5090.
13. Woese CR, Fox GE: The concept of cellular evolution. J Mol Evol 1977, 10(1):1–6.
14. Forterre P, Philippe H: Where is the root of the universal tree of life? BioEssays 1999, 21(10):871–879.
15. Zhaxybayeva O, Lapierre P, Gogarten JP: Ancient gene duplications and the root(s) of the tree of life. Protoplasma 2005, 227(1):53–64.
16. Skophammer RG, Herbold CW, Rivera MC, Servin JA, Lake JA: Evidence that the Root of the Tree of Life Is Not within the Archaea. Mol Biol Evol 2006, 23(9):1648–1651.
17. Boucher Y, Kamekura M, Doolittle WF: Origins and evolution of isoprenoid lipid biosynthesis in archaea. Mol Microbiol 2004, 52(2):515–527.
18. Boucher Y, Doolittle WF: The role of lateral gene transfer in the evolution of isoprenoid biosynthesis pathways. Mol Microbiol 2000, 37(4):703–716.
19. Claus H, Akca E, Debaerdemaeker T, Evrard C, Declercq JP, Harris JR, Schlott B, Konig H: Molecular organization of selected prokaryotic S-layer proteins. Can J Microbiol 2005, 51(9):731–743.
20. Keeling PJ, Burger G, Durnford DG, Lang BF, Lee RW, Pearlman RE, Roger AJ, Gray MW: The tree of eukaryotes. Trends Ecol Evol 2005, 20(12):670–676.
21. Deamer DW: Role of amphiphilic compounds in the evolution of membrane structure on the early earth. Orig Life Evol Biosph 1986, 17(1):3–25.
22. Sapp J: The prokaryote-eukaryote dichotomy: meanings and mythology. Microbiol Mol Biol Rev 2005, 69(2):292–305.
23. Lawrence JG:Gene transfer and minimal genome size. In: Size Limits of Very Small Microorganisms. Washington, D.C: National Research Council.; 1999: 32–38.
Reviewer's report 3
Arcady Mushegian, Stowers Institute
Section on "Viral hallmark genes: beacons of the ancient virus world", 4th paragraph:maybe tread more carefully on LBA artifacts:if taken literally, and if virus enzymes are long branches, they would attract each other, would they not? (same applies to the argument in the 6th paragraph of the same section).
Author response:yes, this is a good catch, the artifact involved here is not, exactly, LBA; the wording was modified.
Section on "Viral hallmark genes: beacons of the ancient virus world", 5th paragraph: do we indeed have the evidence that all viral JRC's are monophyletic, to the exclusion of nucleoplasmin and PNGase? (on the same matter, Table : 'protein-protein interaction domains of certain enzymes' is ambiguous: the enzymes in question have peptide substrates, so one should perhaps leave open the possibility of theancient relationship to a peptide-modifying enzyme – or disprove it more convincingly).
Author response: The statement in question was softened. Obtaining such evidence for JRC is, indeed, extremely hard. Note, however, that nucleoplasmin and PNGase are exclusively eukaryotic proteins, in a marked contrast to the ubiquitous JRC. This seems to define the vector of evolution quite clearly. This is a subject for another day, though.
Table : consider replacing "smacks of essentialism and might not be fruitful" by something like "does little to explain the trajectories of most other virus-specific and virus hallmark genes".
Author response:Appreciated; a hybrid version was substituted for the old text.
General discussion item: Archaeal genomes themselves appear to be partitioned into unique (ultimately also eukaryotic) informational genes and bacteria-like operational genes. If this isalso to be understood asevidence for an ancient gene exchange, has there been a concomitant exchange of virus-like elements?
Author response:The notion of the partitioning of archaeal genes into two classes with distinct evolutionary provenances seems to be somewhat misguided (this is, of course, very regrettable because it comes from a well-known and, in many ways, still relevant paper of which one of us is the first author: Koonin et al. Mol Microbiol. 1997 Aug;25(4):619–37). However, it is actually eukaryotes that have a "bipartite" gene set, with the informational genes coming, predominantly, from archaea and the operational genes, mostly, from bacteria. In a three-way comparison, it is impossible to decide whether the partitioning applies to archaeal or to eukaryotic genomes but the notion of the symbiotic origin of eukaryotes breaks the symmetry. This being said, there was, of course enormous amount of HGT between bacteria and archaea, and this involved virus-like elements as well. This is readily demonstrated by comparative genomics of viruses of mesophilic euryarchaea and various archaeal plasmids. However, viruses of hyperthermophilic crenarchaeota are very distinct and seem to be a unique, almost isolated domain of the virus world (see Prangishvili et al. Virus Res. 2006 Apr;117(1):52–67).
Finally, I would like the authors to address the following. The difference between the proposed scenario and Forterre hypothesis is inthe two main respects: i. Forterre says that ancient cellular life had RNA genome, while the new hypothesis says that RNA genome was replaced by mixed RNA/DNA genome (and perhaps then by DNA genome) pre-escape from inorganic compartments, and ii. Forterre says DNA genome was invented by viruses to protect itself from the host defense, while the new hypothesis says that DNA genome was invented by the primordial pre-escape genetic ensemble in the compartments, perhaps as a physical stabilization measure, and did not favor viral over non-viral genomes, if indeed there was any difference. Is this an accurate summary? If so, perhaps the authors should emphasize not only the difference between theForterre and their own theories, though of coursesuch difference issignificant, but also similar points that set these two theories apart from all the previous ones – i.e., for example, similar views on early and polyphyletic origin of viruses, intertwined evolutionary history of viral and cellular LUCAs, etc.?
Author response:The summary of differences is pretty accurate; we might add the two (in our scenario) versus three (in Forterre's scenario) primary cellular lineages as another important distinction. In any case, the point is well taken, we agree that it is useful to emphasize some similarities to Forterre's views at the level of the most general meta-concepts, so language to that effect has been added in the revised text and Table .