Summary Procaryotes (cells without a distinct nucleus) are biochemically the most diverse organisms and include species that can obtain all their energy and nutrients from inorganic chemical sources, such as the reactive mixtures of minerals released at hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor—the sort of diet that may have nourished the first living cells 3.5 billion years ago. DNA sequence comparisons reveal the family relationships of living organisms and show that the procaryotes fall into two groups that diverged early in the course of evolution: the bacteria (or eubacteria) and the archaea. Together with the eucaryotes (cells with a membrane-enclosed nucleus), these constitute the three primary branches of the tree of life. Most bacteria and archaea are small unicellular organisms with compact genomes comprising 1000–6000 genes. Many of the genes within a single organism show strong family resemblances in their DNA sequences, implying that they originated from the same ancestral gene through gene duplication and divergence. Family resemblances (homologies) are also clear when gene sequences are compared between different species, and more than 200 gene families have been so highly conserved that they can be recognized as common to most species from all three domains of the living world. Thus, given the DNA sequence of a newly discovered gene, it is often possible to deduce the gene’s function from the known function of a homologous gene in an intensively studied model organism, such as the bacterium E. coli.