After being a matter of hot debate for years, the presence of lipid membranes in the last common ancestor of extant organisms (i.e., the cenancestor) now begins to be generally accepted. By contrast, cenancestral cell walls have attracted less attention, probably owing to the large diversity of cell walls that exist in the three domains of life. Many prokaryotic cell walls, however, are synthesized using glycosylation pathways with similar polyisoprenol lipid carriers and topology (i.e., orientation across the cell membranes). Here, we provide the first systematic phylogenomic report on the polyisoprenol biosynthesis pathways in the three domains of life. This study shows that, whereas the last steps of the polyisoprenol biosynthesis are unique to the respective domain of life of which they are characteristic, the enzymes required for basic unsaturated polyisoprenol synthesis can be traced back to the respective last common ancestor of each of the three domains of life. As a result, regardless of the topology of the tree of life that may be considered, the most parsimonious hypothesis is that these enzymes were inherited in modern lineages from the cenancestor. This observation supports the presence of an enzymatic mechanism to synthesize unsaturated polyisoprenols in the cenancestor and, since these molecules are notorious lipid carriers in glycosylation pathways involved in the synthesis of a wide diversity of prokaryotic cell walls, it provides the first indirect evidence of the existence of a hypothetical unknown cell wall synthesis mechanism in the cenancestor.
Lombard, J. (2016). Early evolution of polyisoprenol biosynthesis and the origin of cell walls. PeerJ, 4, e2626. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.2626