Fortunately, for culinary purposes, we can simplify things
quite a bit, by ignoring a bunch of whole "kingdoms" that aren't
particularly edible. So here we present our "Tree of Life", considering
only edible branches - but they are by far the most important branches
Illustration of Plant Eukaryote Cell Structure by LadyofHats contributed
to the public domain (click on it for larger).
In the Beginning was LUCA
Just after the Hadean Age when the Earth was only about 750 million years old (About 3.7 billion years ago), LUCA (Last Universal Common Ancestor) came to be. LUCA was not the first life form on Earth, but is the ancestor of all life we can identify, living or extinct. Genetic research has placed LUCA in a hot, toxic, metal-laden, gassy environment, very like the hot, toxic, metal-laden, gassy environment of deep sea vents that still exist today. Similar conditions probably also existed on the surface in those formative times. Illustration (Click for larger view, details and licensing).
From LUCA evolved two domains of life, Bacteria and Archaea. From Archaea evolved the third, Eukaryota. The intense debate as to whether LUCA was alive, or just "half alive", or formed in the deep sea or on the surface, are entertainments for specialists and need not concern us here.
These simple (comparatively) single celled organisms have been with us since evolving from LUCA about 3.5 billion years ago. They remain in the same basic form, having no cell nucleus or internal membranes. Bacteria constitute more of the Earth's biomass than animals and plants together. The human body contains 30% more Bacteria cells than Animal Eukaryote cells (the "10 times as many" theory has been debunked), and is dependent on these Bacteria for digestion and some other functions. Illustration (Click for larger view, details and licensing).
For culinary purposes, bacteria are also very important, for things like making vinegar, wine, cheese and many other products. Bacterial fermentation is also important for detoxifying soybeans and similar activities.
One type, Cyanobacteria, developed advanced photosynthesis (about 3.4
billion years ago) - using the sun's energy to break Carbon Dioxide and
release Oxygen. It's runaway success eventually resulted in catastrophe.
First came the "Great Rust" (to 2.5 billion years ago), then, with nothing
left to rust, free Oxygen gathered in the atmosphere and poisoned most
life on Earth. Thinning of the atmosphere and reduction of greenhouse
gasses resulted in the longest Ice Age this world has experienced (2.4
billion years ago for 300 million years). It is this catastrophe that made
our form of life possible.
These single celled life forms are about the size and appearance of bacteria, and originated at about the same time (3.5 billion years ago). They were classified as bacteria until 1977, when advanced genetic analysis caused them to be placed in their own domain. Not a lot is yet known about Archaea. They were thought to live mostly in extreme environments but now they have been found in the ocean, soil and the human mouth, gut and skin.
Archaea have not been much studied because they are neither parasites
nor do they cause diseases. They are, however important to life cycles
of the planet, and may account for 20% of Earth's biomass. Living
transition forms have been found deep in sediments off the coast
of Antarctica, making it clear that Eucaryotes developed from Archaea.
Archaea are still so little known their culinary value is undefined,
but they are likely important to digestion.
Illustration (Click for
larger view, details and licensing).
These are the "higher" life forms, with a much more complex cell structure than Bacteria or Archaea. They first appeared about 2.2 billion years ago. Since living transition forms have been found, it is pretty certain Eukaryotes are descended from Archaea. The big difference is that some bacteria engulfed by Archaea were not digested, but took up residence in the cells. These bacteria proved highly beneficial, eventually evolving into the Mitochondria so essential to our lives today. These entities retained their own separate DNA, so Archaea cells so infected set up Internal membranes to keep things orderly. Most important, these internal membranes defined a cell nucleus, the definitive characteristic of Eukaryota. Illustration (Click for larger view, details and licensing).
Eukaryota continued to grow larger and develop complex internal organs. They are unique in their ability to organize into large, complex multi-cellular entities, such as plants and animals (beginning about 1.5 billion years ago). They also developed sexual reproduction, about 1.25 billion years ago. Evolution was extremely slow until the invention of sex - then it took off like gangbusters. The Eukariotes evolved into a number of distinct lineages:
Opisthokonta: The Animals and Fungi, descending from a common Eukaryote ancestor, live by breaking down and digesting dead and living plant and animal material. There are no significant exceptions.
Archaeplastida: Plants were formed by Eukaryotes already containing Mitochondria. These also engulfing a form of Cyanobacteria, which evolved into Chloroplasts. These Cyanobacteria enable plants to generate their own food from sunlight, carbon dioxide and minerals, and to breath out Oxygen. Like Mitochondria, Chloroplasts have their own separate DNA. To some extent plants also depend on fungi to break down rock to release the minerals they need - and many depend on animals for their reproductive strategy. It is suspected that some plants use the network of fungus mycelium fibers as a sort of Internet, as they have been observed to react to threats affecting plants otherwise isolated from them.
Chromalveolata: These are similar to plants - but they aren't plants, at least not yet. Red and green algae used to be here, but are now considered plants.
[viri, viruses, viron (singular)] These entities are generally 100th the size of a Bacteria and most cannot be seen with an optical microscope. They have many shapes, but their structure is very similar to the HIV virus illustrated here. Whether or not they are "life forms" is a matter of opinion. They have been described as "organisms on the edge of life". Unlike the other cells on this page they lack Ribosomes, essential for reproduction.
While tiny and relatively simple, Viri are clearly not precursors to LUCA, as they can only reproduce by infecting post-LUCA cells. They may have originated from DNA fragments of living cells. Their culinary value is negative, as they damage and kill food (and people), so we consider them no further here, except in matters of food safety. Illustration (Click for larger view, details and licensing).