Common genes form new family tree for animals

MADISON -- Looking deep within the genes of three very different kinds of animals, scientists have found enough molecular evidence to finally fell the animal kingdom's old family tree.

Writing this week in the British journal Nature, scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Paris, Cambridge University and St. Petersburg University in Russia report the discovery of a common genetic theme that provides powerful new evidence to firmly place nearly all animals -- from mollusks to humans -- on a simplified, three-limbed tree of life.

For more than a hundred years, scientist have depended on morphology, the form and structure of animals, to determine their place on the family tree. But over the past few years, a new tree has been proposed based on comparisons of themes found in animal genes.

"In the last four or five years, this tree has been totally reorganized and if you're interested in evolutionary relationships, that's really important," said Sean B. Carroll, a professor of molecular biology at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the UW-Madison and a co-author of the report in Nature.

The new genetic evidence suggests that in the animal kingdom there are three primary lines of descent that first diverged from a common ancestor at least 540 million years ago, and that gave rise to most animals (with the exception of jellyfish and sponges) living today, said Jennifer K. Grenier, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Fellow, UW-Madison graduate student and a lead author of the report.

The new study was based on exploration of so-called Hox genes in three distinct kinds of animals: an unsegmented marine worm related to insects, an unusual marine animal called a lamp shell, and a segmented worm related to earthworms and leeches. Hox genes comprise part of a toolbox that is central to animal development. They help organize cells into the different body parts and determine such things as number and placement of legs, win

Contact: Sean B. Carroll
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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