SUMMARY: The availability of a meaningful molecular phylogeny for bacteria provides a context for examining the historical significance of various developments in bacterial evolution. Herein, the classical morphological descriptions of selected members of the domain Bacteria are mapped upon the genealogical ancestry deduced from comparison of small-subunit rRNA sequences. For the species examined in this study, a distinct pattern emerges which indicates that the coccus shape has arisen and accumulated independently multiple times in separate lineages and typically survived as a persistent end-state morphology. At least two other morphologies persist but have evolved only once. This study demonstrates that although bacterial morphology is not useful in defining bacterial phylogeny, it is remarkably consistent with that phylogeny once it is known. An examination of the experimental evidence available for morphogenesis as well as microbial fossil evidence corroborates these findings. It is proposed that the accumulation of persistent morphologies is a result of the biophysical properties of peptidoglycan and their genetic control, and that an evolved body-plan strategy based on peptidoglycan may have been a fate-sealing step in the evolution of Bacteria. More generally, this study illustrates that significant evolutionary insights can be obtained by examining biological and biochemical data in the context of a reliable phylogenetic structure.


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