Thursday, October 04, 2007
Is "Prokaryote" a Useful Term?
Coturnix (Bora Zivkovic) is the Online Community Manager at PLoS-ONE (Public Library of Science). Part of his job is to get people to post comments on the PLoS websites. [New in Science Publishing, etc.]
So when Bora suggested we get involved in a debate on "Is "prokaryotic" an outdated term?" I hopped on over to the PLoS website and read the comments. I discovered that you have to register on PLoS in order to comment so I went ahead and did that and posted a response to the question.
I don't like registering on websites, it's a painful process, especially in this case 'cause you have to answer a lot of questions. It took me about ten minutes to figure out what to do and to convince the program to let me register even though I didn't want to receive email spam from PLoS. I also had to make up a user ID—Larry_Moran, in this case—because, apparently your name isn't good enough. This is not a very open process.
The Three Domain Hypothesis
Anyway, the question is important. If you think the Three Domain Hypothesis is well established, then you believe there are two non-eukaryotic domains (Bacteria, Archaea). Furthermore, the eukaryotes cluster with the Archaea according to this hypothesis. Thus, the word "prokaryote" encompasses a paraphyletic group and becomes useless.
But we wouldn't be having this discussion if the Three Domain Hypothesis is incorrect. In that case, the root of the tree might well be a split between eukaryotes and prokaryotes. The point is that the discussion about usefulness of "prokaryote" is really a debate about the validity of the Three Domain Hypothesis and we shouldn't forget that. It's wrong to assume that your side has won that debate and then start to solidify your apparent victory by defining your opponent's point of view out of existence!