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Genetic analysis rewrites salamander's evolutionary history

rates without lungs - they breathe through their skin - Plethodontids were thought to have originated in the Appalachians because the southern portion of that chain has the greatest diversity of species.

The new family tree, constructed by comparing the mitochondrial genomes of 22 representative Plethodontid species and five others from different salamander families, offers no support for the out-of-Appalachia theory, Mueller said.

"We can infer only a North American origin," Mueller said. "Most likely, where these species are now doesn't relate to where they were ages ago, because the climate and geology have changed so much, and the species have moved around."

Though results from this one family of vertebrates can't necessarily be generalized to other families, Mueller said, "this does tell us that, when reconstructing evolutionary relationships, you have to be careful which morphological features you assume are conservative and haven't evolved much, and which you think are likely to have changed over time."

Three years ago, Mueller teamed up with the Joint Genome Institute (JGI) in Walnut Creek, Calif., to sequence the complete mitochondrial genomes of 24 salamanders, all but two of them Plethodontids. The mitochondrial genome is smaller than the nuclear genome, containing only 37 complete genes in most animals - just those needed to produce energy for the cell. They're inherited without recombination from the mother, and therefore represent an unbroken female chain going back perhaps 100-150 million years in plethodontid salamanders. By looking at mutations in the mitochondrial DNA, biologists can infer the pattern of evolution.

"What is happening now is that by focusing on mitochondrial genes and adding particular nuclear genes, we really are teasing apart issues related to our understanding of the tree of life," Wake said.

Mueller obtained DNA samples from frozen salamander tissue in the collection of UC Berkeley
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Contact: Robert Sanders
rls@pa.urel.berkeley.edu
510-643-6998
University of California - Berkeley
13-Sep-2004


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