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UTA professors part of the international team unveiling “Big Bang” of bird evolution

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Media Contact: Traci Peterson

News Topics: genetics, labs, medicine, research, science

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Two University of Texas at Arlington biology professors are part of a worldwide group of genomic researchers responsible for a blockbuster series of scientific papers published Thursday in the journal Science and several others.

On Thursday afternoon, an international collaboration known as the Avian Phylogenomics Consortium announced the simultaneous release of 28 papers focusing on the genomes of almost 50 birds and 3 crocodilian species. According to the announcement, the work traces the genomes of modern birds and attempts to “tell a story of how they emerged and evolved after the mass extinction that wiped out dinosaurs and almost everything else 66 million years ago.”

Todd Castoe

Todd Castoe

The Avian Phylogenomics Consortium has so far involved more than 200 scientists hailing from 80 institutions in 20 countries. The full announcement is available here: http://avian.genomics.cn/en/index.html.

Todd Castoe and Matthew Fujita, both assistant professors of biology at UT Arlington, are co-authors on multiple papers in the set, including one paper appearing in journal Science focusing on the genomes of crocodilians, the ancestor of modern crocodiles. They are also co-authors on a paper in the journal Gigascience exploring the genomes of two Antarctic penguins.

Matthew Fujita

Matthew Fujita

Different vertebrate groups, including humans, birds and reptiles, have many of the same genes. So, scientists believe studying how theses species evolved could eventually lead to a better understanding of the human body, in addition to the natural world.

Crocodiles are the closest living relative to the bird and one motivation of acquiring the crocodilian genomes was to understand how such disparate organisms could be so closely related, according to Castoe.

“A major finding of the crocodilian genome study was that crocodilians, like turtles, evolve incredibly slowly. This suggests that at some point, an ancestor of birds and crocodilians may have also had a slow evolving genome,” Castoe said. “Not all reptiles are slow evolvers, however, and the paper also compares these slow evolving reptiles to snakes, which are one of the fastest evolving lineages of all vertebrates.  We are constantly learning new things about the tempo and mode of evolution of our genomes, many of which come as a complete surprise.”

The Science paper is titled “The genomes of three crocodilians provide insight into Archosaur evolution.” It is available here: www.sciencemag.org/content/346/6215/1254449.full?utm_source=eloqua

The Gigascience paper on penguin genomes is titled “Two Antarctic penguin genomes reveal insights into their evolutionary history and molecular changes related to the Antarctic environment.” It is available here: http://www.gigasciencejournal.com/content/3/1/27.

That work focuses on draft genome sequences of two Antarctic dwelling penguin species, the Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) and emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri). Scientists believe both arose as species about 60 million years ago, during a period of global warming. The differences in their genomes show their diverse and varied reactions to a changing climate.

Fujita said the insights revealed in the new papers demonstrate that complex biological questions require a collaborative approach.

“As demonstrated with this project, the novel insights gained were possible only through the joint efforts of multiple research programs and institutions, sending an important message to the next generation of researchers that progress in science requires input and participation from teams of individuals and organization,” Fujita said.

About The University of Texas at Arlington

The University of Texas at Arlington is a comprehensive research institution and the second largest institution in The University of Texas System. The Chronicle of Higher Education ranked UT Arlington as the seventh fastest-growing public research university in 2013. U.S. News & World Report ranks UT Arlington fifth in the nation for undergraduate diversity. Visit www.uta.edu to learn more. Follow #UTAdna on Twitter. 

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The University of Texas at Arlington is an Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action employer.