Molecular systematics has revolutionized our understanding of microbial evolution. Phylogenetic frameworks relating all organisms in this biosphere can be inferred from comparisons of slowly evolving molecules such as the small and large subunit ribosomal RNAs. Unlike today's text book standard, the "Five Kingdoms" (plants, animals, fungi, protists and bacteria), molecular studies define three primary lines of descent (Eukaryotes, Eubacteria, and Archaebacteria). Within the Eukaryotes, the "higher" kingdoms (Fungi, Plantae, and Animalia) are joined by at least two novel complex evolutionary assemblages, the "Alveolates" (ciliates, dinoflagellates and apicomplexans) and the "Stramenopiles" (diatoms, oomycetes, labyrinthulids, brown algae and chrysophytes). The separation of these eukaryotic groups (described as the eukaryotic "crown") occurred approximately 10(9) years ago and was preceded by a succession of earlier diverging protist lineages, some as ancient as the separation of the prokaryotic domains. The molecular phylogenies suggest that multiple endosymbiotic events introduced plastids into discrete eukaryotic lineages.