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MICROBIOLOGY throughout the book and continues to plague
bacterial classification.
The Trouble with Trees A more fundamental problem is horizon-
tal gene transfer. Bacteria (and archaea too)
W. P. Hanage are notoriously promiscuous and can take up
DNA with scant regard for the boundaries

t has been said before, but it bears repeat- bacteria). It is now thought that the Archaea of named species. Horizontal transfer raises
ing: evolutionary biology has been devel- are more closely related to us humans than severe questions about any analysis that is
oped, almost without exception “by sex- they are to bacteria. This finding shook tax- based on phylogeny because different genes
ually reproducing eukaryotes, for sexually onomy to its foundations. in a single organism can have different histo-
reproducing eukaryotes” (1). Given that the It is always easier to convince your fel- ries. Although the book raises in passing the
vast majority of living things on this planet, low scientists of something they think they notion that the tree of life should be replaced
both in numbers and biomass, are not sexu- know already. Woese’s work was emphati- by something like a worldwide web of life,
ally reproducing eukaryotes, this might be cally not in this category, and much of Sapp’s neither the evidence for this web nor its
considered an oversight. Jan Sapp certainly story describes the rocky road to its accep- implications are considered in any depth—
thinks so. In The New Foundations tance. Few obstacles were despite that fact that it strikes at the very
of Evolution: On the Tree of Life, greater than the opposi- heart of the phylogenetic approach to clas-

Downloaded from on February 6, 2010
The New Foundations
he gives us a history of microbiol- of Evolution tion of Ernst Mayr, which sification championed by Woese. It is churl-
ogy, from Leeuwenhoek to modern- On the Tree of Life
Sapp describes in some ish to complain too much, because the debate
day disputes, taking an evolutionary detail. Although Mayr rec- about horizontal gene transfer and the tree of
perspective. by Jan Sapp ognized that finding the life is far from settled. But the topic deserves
Sapp (an evolutionary biolo- Oxford University Press, Archaea was “like discov- a more thorough treatment than Sapp affords
gist and historian of science at York New York, 2009. 445 pp. $99, ering a new continent” (2), it, if only because it is so fundamental to evo-
University, Toronto) recounts how £54. ISBN 9780195388497. the great biologist argued lutionary microbiology.
microbiological thinking developed Paper, $39.95, £27.50. that when it came to clas- My other concern is that in several places
in almost total isolation from evolu- ISBN 9780195388503. sification, phylogeny was the author describes prokaryotic evolution
tion until the 1970s. That is when the irrelevant in the face of (with its high rate of horizontal gene transfer
comparison of 16S rRNA sequences became such a stark difference as the presence or and the uncoupling of sex from reproduction)
possible, allowing the phylogeny of species absence of a membrane-bound nucleus that as “non-Darwinian”—this stretches to the
to be readily estimated. More closely related contained chromosomes. If a cell had such a publisher’s claim on its Web site that the book
species have more similar 16S sequences, nucleus, it was a eukaryote, and if not, it was “puts forth a new theory on evolution,” which
because there has been less time for them to a prokaryote. This was all that was required it emphatically does not. Given that evolu-
diverge. When the new methods were applied for “an information storage and retrieval sys- tion even among archaea and bacteria is still
to bacteria, the results completely upset pre- tem” (2), which was to Mayr the purpose based on the generation of variation, which is
vious taxonomy, which had been based on of classification. From the viewpoint of the winnowed by selection and then inherited, I
relatively crude metabolic tests and morphol- present day, Mayr comes across as small- would argue Darwin was substantially right.
ogy. It also revealed the previously unimag- minded, with a classical biologist’s ignorance Or more right than one could reasonably
ined diversity of single-celled life. of microbiology. But his position offers a fine expect given that he had no conception of the
The heroes of Sapp’s book (because it illustration of the tension between theoreti- gene and little knowledge of bacteria.
is that kind of history) are Carl Woese and cal consistency and pragmatism, which runs That Sapp makes his story so sparkling is
his colleagues, who first pressed the 16S
sequence into service. Their most remark- Plantae Fungi Animalia Bacteria
able discovery concerned an obscure group
of bacteria typically isolated from environ-
ments characterized by, for example, very
high temperature or salt concentrations. (I
say obscure because they were far from the
driving concerns of medicine and industry.)
Together with the methanogens, they were
the first examples of what came to be known
as the Archaea. Although they superficially
resembled bacteria (being single-celled and

lacking a nucleus), these organisms had a dis-
tinctively different metabolism, cell wall, and Protista
transcription machinery. In time, they came to
be recognized as a whole new domain of life Monera
alongside eukaryotes and eubacteria (“true” Eucarya

The reviewer is at the Department of Infectious Disease Epi-
demiology, Imperial College London, London W2 1PG, UK. Two views of life. A five-kingdom system based on three levels of organization [after R. H. Whittaker
E-mail: (3)] and a three-domain phylogenetic tree [after Norman Pace (4)]. SCIENCE VOL 327 5 FEBRUARY 2010 645
Published by AAAS

that nuclear proliferation is both less likely ler overstates his case. colleagues. has been greatly Nuclear Weapons. both antiquated and modern.” nuclear terrorist attack on the all but three states signed the treaty shows Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda In Mueller’s view. ples: It is certainly plausible that a Cold War References ers and analysts believe. USA. of other states as well as early warning of University). way. of course. the widespread acceptance of the Bush tide of microbial genomes is changing this administration’s claim that Saddam state of affairs. to the deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands There is much to agree with in the book. N. £16. have killed fewer people than the wars undertaken to stop bomb. and even. loosely asserted. as in the case of Iraq. 2010. Levin. Stanford University. E. Bergstrom. he claims.BOOKS ET AL. however.looks far-fetched in the extreme. Sci. and it would have taken the same basic encouragement to al-Qaeda. would not is accepted. national politics. espe- appeal of nuclear weapons for some states.S. nuclear weapons. H. but it is not convincing to say that nuclear 4. Stanford. but there is devastation it caused would have prevented a anced way about allocating resources to meet a higher one: “avoiding policies that can lead the threats the United States faces. E-mail: on February 6.1126/science. he points out. Oxford University Press.sciencemag. The political leaders of the ing threats. 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of John Mueller argues that Americans which.1126/science. To take just two exam- and less dangerous than many political lead. The clas- of taxonomy. with nuclear puncturing some of the inflated rhetoric about 10. The sic example is. Nevertheless. It would be of predictability about the nuclear behavior CREDIT: FWIS DESIGN/COURTESY OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS political scientist at Ohio State very different from the mas. T. largely useless. of people under the obsessive sway of worst- The reviewer is at the Center for International Security and Cooperation. B.99.” A the behavior of other states. CA 94305– Mueller performs an important service in case scenario fantasies. I nuclear weapons. In order to know where we are Hussein was reconstituting his nuclear going. could hardly have happened without ary biology. do not want nuclear weapons. tique of those who like to echo notion that they could effec. nuclear states than now exist. Pace. lead to the extinction of the have organized clandestine nuclear weapon gers they present. eration Treaty has not had a very great effect. Acad. Most microbiologists the war were. even if some signatory states nuclear weapons and the dan. and the fact that Nuclear Alarmism from to make your flesh creep. New York. More generally. Natl. and vice versa. even if it wanted to. about nuclear threats is counterproductive in provide policy proposals. 3. it gives mendation concerns North Korea and Iran. The third and final part of the book Or consider Mueller’s treatment of the A tomic Obsession is a contrarian book. They are. We all carry with us intel.1185784 nuclear weapons by imposing sanctions. as many have programs.1186122 646 5 FEBRUARY 2010 VOL 327 SCIENCE www. Mueller argues with. U. U. efforts to stop the spread of weapons were essentially irrelevant to inter- 10. R.S. his book offers a cri. He is rightly skeptical have worried too much about nuclear exaggerated: “any notion that the actual al. Most states. it is helpful to reflect on how we came weapons program. Mueller’s chief purpose in this thought- part of the book. catastrophic how widely the norm of nonproliferation look with a much cooler eye at by John Mueller though it would be. as does the rightly notes.” he writes. Whatever the actual motives for remain current today. the way they conducted policy. Mueller claims. 9780195381368. Muel- fellow microbiologists—and even my own. Mayr. In the first figured in Cold War scenarios. not indifferent to Atomic Obsession The Pickwick Papers: “I wants one given them by a state.Qaeda enemy has the capacity to come up tion Treaty we would today have many more ies have led to costly and dangerous policies. and their ideas about the use of nuclear weapons for deterrence and coercion shaped David Holloway nuclear proliferation. The memory of World War II and the obstacles to thinking in a sensible and bal. Natl. 9720 (1998). focusing not on how close we came to lectual baggage and preconceptions from not nuclear war but rather on the limitations only our own experiences but also those of our on the use of nuclear weapons. Science 276. The Nuclear Non-Prolif. it raises He has “nothing against making nonprolif- form. 336 pp.A. 97. 734 (1997). eration a high priority. Mueller pro- friends. by to be where we are. least two ways.” 6055.S.S. Proc. 95. United States. Acad. were rivals in shaping the postwar world. 6981 (2000). the 2003 U. cially after the development of the hydrogen Fearful Distractions Nuclear weapons. and mentors. His main recom- The Cold War would have happened any. deals with the threat of nuclear terrorism. Science 163. The book also contains much to disagree Downloaded from www. They are not champing at the bit to develop the words of the Fat Boy in tively handle a pilfered one or them. He is right to point to an achievement all the more impressive when the traps that absolutist rhetoric about one remembers he must include a fair amount nuclear threats can create. new world war even without the presence of nuclear history. Like the alarmists he criticizes. Proc. 2010 feel that I better understand the minds of my In the book’s second part. sive Soviet nuclear strike that attempts to go nuclear. dations of Evolution is that having read it. he contends that the bomb Mueller fears that hyperbolic rhetoric provoking book is to analyze rather than to has had little impact on international politics. 150 (1969). invasion still do not know very much about evolution. Whittaker. Second. U.sciencemag. nuclear powers thought very seriously about NUCLEAR WEAPONS going to war have only served to enhance the the weapons and their Published by AAAS . Sci. The treaty provides an element According to Mueller (a $27. the atomic obses. and that is why most states Union and the United States because they 2. Perhaps the vides an unusual and fruitful perspective on highest compliment I can pay The New Foun. we should United States. R. R. Nuclear weapons are would have broken out between the Soviet 1. In the first place. he Often witty and acerbic. the war in debates and disputes that animate his account Iraq. do not want them. about claims that without the Non-Prolifera- weapons and that their unwarranted anxiet. issu. sion has existed since Hiroshima.