Study of aquatic bird genes reveals surprising relationships and evolutionary history

suggests that "evolutionary change in aquatic birds has proceeded at a faster pace than previously recognized," explains Marcel van Tuinen, a member of the Hedegs research team.

The scientists say they feel the conclusions of their research are strengthened by their combination of two different analysis techniques, their use of genetic material from separate sources, and the comprehensiveness of both studies. The Kirsch lab used a technique called "DNA/DNA hybridization" and the Hedges lab used a technique called "DNA sequencing."

The DNA/DNA hybridization technique is a method of gauging the degree of genetic similarity between two species by comparing all the genetic material--the entire genome--contained in the DNA molecules of each species. "In birds, the entire genome comprises about 20 to 30 thousand or more genes," Hedges says.

In contrast, the DNA sequencing technique is a more targeted comparison of the composition of individual genes--specific sections of the DNA molecule that carry the codes for specific inherited traits. The sequencing technique compares the actual order, or sequence, of the innermost pairs of molecules in the gene, known as "base pairs," which are strung side by side along the core of the DNA molecule and which hold together the molecules that make up its two sides.

The hybridization studies in the Kirsch lab included 21 species representing the major families of aquatic birds. The sequencing studies in the Hedges lab included 6 genes from each of 28 species--the largest such study ever performed for aquatic birds.

"We never imagined the flamingo and the grebe would turn out to be closest relatives, and were so surprised by this outcome that we did additional examinations using different sources of flamingo and grebe genetic material and obtained the same results," Hedges says. "A lot of people may have trouble believing the results from these genetic studies for a while, but they c

Contact: Barbara K. Kennedy
Penn State

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