Phylogenetic tracings of proteome size support the gradual accretion of protein structural domains and the early origin of viruses from primordial cells

Arshan Nasir, Kyung Mo Kim, Gustavo Caetano-Anollés

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Untangling the origin and evolution of viruses remains a challenging proposition. We recently studied the global distribution of protein domain structures in thousands of completely sequenced viral and cellular proteomes with comparative genomics, phylogenomics, and multidimensional scaling methods. A tree of life describing the evolution of proteomes revealed viruses emerging from the base of the tree as a fourth supergroup of life. A tree of domains indicated an early origin of modern viral lineages from ancient cells that co-existed with the cellular ancestors. However, it was recently argued that the rooting of our trees and the basal placement of viruses was artifactually induced by small genome (proteome) size. Here we show that these claims arise from misunderstanding and misinterpretations of cladistic methodology. Trees are reconstructed unrooted, and thus, their topologies cannot be distorted a posteriori by the rooting methodology. Tracing proteome size in trees and multidimensional views of evolutionary relationships as well as tests of leaf stability and exclusion/inclusion of taxa demonstrated that the smallest proteomes were neither attracted toward the root nor caused any topological distortions of the trees. Simulations confirmed that taxa clustering patterns were independent of proteome size and were determined by the presence of known evolutionary relatives in data matrices, highlighting the need for broader taxon sampling in phylogeny reconstruction. Instead, phylogenetic tracings of proteome size revealed a slowdown in innovation of the structural domain vocabulary and four regimes of allometric scaling that reflected a Heaps law. These regimes explained increasing economies of scale in the evolutionary growth and accretion of kernel proteome repertoires of viruses and cellular organisms that resemble growth of human languages with limited vocabulary sizes. Results reconcile dynamic and static views of domain frequency distributions that are consistent with the axiom of spatiotemporal continuity that is tenet of evolutionary thinking.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1178
JournalFrontiers in Microbiology
Issue numberJUN
StatePublished - Jun 23 2017


  • Heaps law
  • Origin of viruses
  • Phylogenomics
  • Protein structure
  • Proteome growth
  • Tree of life

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Microbiology (medical)


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