A universal molecular clock of protein folds and its power in tracing the early history of aerobic metabolism and planet oxygenation

Minglei Wang, Ying Ying Jiang, Kyung Mo Kim, Ge Qu, Hong Fang Ji, Jay E. Mittenthal, Hong Yu Zhang, Gustavo Caetano-Anollés

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The standard molecular clock describes a constant rate of molecular evolution and provides a powerful framework for evolutionary timescales. Here, we describe the existence and implications of a molecular clock of folds, a universal recurrence in the discovery of new structures in the world of proteins. Using a phylogenomic structural census in hundreds of proteomes, we build phylogenies and time lines of domains at fold and fold superfamily levels of structural complexity. These time lines correlate approximately linearly with geological timescales and were here used to date two crucial events in life history, planet oxygenation and organism diversification. We first dissected the structures and functions of enzymes in simulated metabolic networks. The placement of anaerobic and aerobic enzymes in the time line revealed that aerobic metabolism emerged about 2.9 billion years (giga-annum; Ga) ago and expanded during a period of about 400 My, reaching what is known as the Great Oxidation Event. During this period, enzymes recruited old and new folds for oxygen-mediated enzymatic activities. Remarkably, the first fold lost by a superkingdom disappeared in Archaea 2.6 Ga ago, within the span of oxygen rise, suggesting that oxygen also triggered diversification of life. The implications of a molecular clock of folds are many and important for the neutral theory of molecular evolution and for understanding the growth and diversity of the protein world. The clock also extends the standard concept that was specific to molecules and their timescales and turns it into a universal timescale-generating tool.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)567-582
Number of pages16
JournalMolecular biology and evolution
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2011


  • aerobic metabolism
  • enzyme
  • evolution
  • function
  • structure

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics


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