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Origin of species continued

The technology used to analyse whole genomes is taking the study of exactly what happens during evolution to a new level.
Origin of species continued
Members of a species can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. When a new species evolves, their new genes and chromosomes are sufficiently different to prevent them from breeding successfully with their old species (reproductive isolation). A classic example is the horse and the donkey that produce infertile mules and hinnies.

Of course, horses and donkeys are many generations apart but the 'Ecological and genomic approaches to speciation in island birds' (BIRDISLAND) project has completed a study on birds living and evolving in the Pacific islands. Specifically, they looked at genes of the white-eyes (Zosterops) and the large bird group The Thraupidae (Tanagers).

After analysis of 300 birds, the tissue and DNA samples are now stored at a tissue voucher bank. The researchers also developed a morphometric database of information including relevant features such as beak and tail. They completed a restriction site associated DNA analysis in 30 birds from 3 populations and analysed the complete genome of 4 Zosterops species.

To pin down the genes implicated in speciation, the team identified the genomic regions responsible and identified 15 candidate loci. A first, the team developed a database of when the species became distinct based on molecular data from the island populations. They also compiled the most comprehensive phylogenies of oceanic island birds to date and amassed geographical and environmental data on some 200 islands.

The impact of this research will be far-reaching. Scientists will be able to identify the precise role of genes involved in reproductive isolation and therefore how new bird species evolve. Biogeographers now have a substantial knowledge platform to calculate statistics relevant to populations, such as rates of speciation and extinction.

On a social and economic level, data has been made freely available to the public, and collaboration and synergy between researchers has accelerated the pace and standard of research. Nine publications about the research have featured in high-profile journals such as Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, The American Naturalist, Systematic Biology, Journal of Biogeography and Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Importantly, island people now have an increased awareness of evolutionary biology and conservation. The issue of gene conservation is important for future generations of animals as well as for eco-tourism.

Related information

Keywords

Genome, evolution, speciation, ecotourism, conservation, island birds
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