BACKGROUND: The genomic history of prokaryotic organismal lineages is marked by extensive horizontal gene transfer (HGT) between groups of organisms at all taxonomic levels. These HGT events have played an essential role in the origin and distribution of biological innovations. Analyses of ancient gene families show that HGT existed in the distant past, even at the time of the organismal last universal common ancestor (LUCA). Most gene transfers originated in lineages that have since gone extinct. Therefore, one cannot assume that the last common ancestors of each gene were all present in the same cell representing the cellular ancestor of all extant life. RESULTS: Organisms existing as part of a diverse ecosystem at the time of LUCA likely shared genetic material between lineages. If these other lineages persisted for some time, HGT with the descendants of LUCA could have continued into the bacterial and archaeal lineages. Phylogenetic analyses of aminoacyl-tRNA synthetase protein families support the hypothesis that the molecular common ancestors of the most ancient gene families did not all coincide in space and time. This is most apparent in the evolutionary histories of seryl-tRNA synthetase and threonyl-tRNA synthetase protein families, each containing highly divergent "rare" forms, as well as the sparse phylogenetic distributions of pyrrolysyl-tRNA synthetase, and the bacterial heterodimeric form of glycyl-tRNA synthetase. These topologies and phyletic distributions are consistent with horizontal transfers from ancient, likely extinct branches of the tree of life. CONCLUSIONS: Of all the organisms that may have existed at the time of LUCA, by definition only one lineage is survived by known progeny; however, this lineage retains a genomic record of heterogeneous genetic origins. The evolutionary histories of aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases (aaRS) are especially informative in detecting this signal, as they perform primordial biological functions, have undergone several ancient HGT events, and contain many sites with low substitution rates allowing deep phylogenetic reconstruction. We conclude that some aaRS families contain groups that diverge before LUCA. We propose that these ancient gene variants be described by the term "hypnologs", reflecting their ancient, reticulate origin from a time in life history that has been all but erased".