Molluks Laevipilina hyalina
Scripps Researchers Part of Team that Completes Mollusk Evolutionary Tree
Scripps research vessel and UC Ship Funds vital for new Nature study
Scripps Institution of
Oceanography/University of California, San Diego
Researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San
University, and partner institutions have compiled the most comprehensive
evolutionary tree for mollusks to date.
Mollusks have been around for so long—at least 500 million years)—are
so prevalent on land and in water (from backyard gardens to the deep ocean),
and are so valuable to people (clam chowder, oysters on the half shell) that
one might assume scientists had learned everything about them.
this big, diverse group of animals, and we don’t know how they were related to
each other,” said Casey Dunn, an evolutionary biologist at Brown University who
specializes in building evolutionary trees. Some branches were well known, Dunn
said, “but what we really lacked was a breadth of sampling.”
advance online paper published Oct. 26, 2011, in Nature, researchers from Scripps Oceanography, Brown, and
collaborating institutions pieced together the most comprehensive phylogeny —
evolutionary tree — for mollusks. To perform that feat, the team collected
hard-to-find specimens through a global sampling effort, including a group of
organisms thought until recently to be extinct for millions of years. The team
then sequenced thousands of genes from the specimens and matched them up
through intensive computational analyses.
result: The mollusk phylogeny is now “resolved at a broad scale,” said Dunn.
study is noteworthy also because it is the first to place Monoplacophora, the
mysterious group of deep-ocean animals that superficially resemble limpets.
Scientists had thought the group was extinct until a specimen was caught in
1952 off the coast of Mexico.
paper coauthor Nerida Wilson, a scientist formerly based at Scripps and now at
the Australian Museum, led an expedition off the coast of California on Scripps’
R/V Robert Gordon Sproul that secured
monoplacophoran specimens. The cruise was made possible by the UC Ship
Funds, a program unique to Scripps that offers graduate and undergraduate
students, postdoctoral researchers, and early career faculty the opportunity to
pursue sea-going science.
critical group for this study was Monoplacophora, a very rare group of
molluscs, which had eluded attempts to collect them in the proper condition for
generating phylogenomic data,” said study coauthor Greg Rouse, a professor of
marine biology at Scripps. “Thanks to UC Ship funds we were able to collect
more than 50 live Monoplacophora.”
team extracted the genetic material — in a one-time-only attempt performed by
then-Brown undergraduate Caitlin Feehery (now a graduate student at Scripps) —
to obtain the genetic signatures needed to determine how monoplacophorans fit
into the mollusk family tree.
result was surprising: monoplacophorans are a sister clade (organisms from a
common ancestor) to cephalopods, which encompasses octopuses, squid, and
nautiluses. “Cephalopods are so different from all other mollusks, it was very
difficult to understand what they are related to. They don’t fit in with the
rest,” Dunn said. “Now, we have a situation where two of the most enigmatic
groups within the mollusks turn out to be sister groups.”
interesting twist, paleontologists had described the monoplacophoran-cephalopod
relationship in the 1970s, resting their claim on evidence that the oldest
cephalopods and fossilized monoplacophorans each had chambered shells.
Modern-day monoplacophorans still carry shells but no longer have chambers.
“When we came in with this genome-level data, we ended up resurrecting this old
hypothesis from paleontology,” Dunn said. The results from the genetic analysis
show the paleontologists were right.
establishing the close evolutionary relationship between monoplacophorans and
cephalopods, the researchers say they have squarely answered the question of a
single origin for shelled mollusks. That ancestor species is not known, but the
group is confident that monoplacophorans and cephalopods share more in common,
evolutionary speaking, with shelled mollusks than with the non-shelled groups
aplacophora and polyplacophora.
we found is these worm-like mollusks (aplacophora) and chitons (polyplacophora)
are more closely related to each other, and they diverged prior to the origin
of the shell,” Dunn said. “They are mollusks, but they formed this group that
split off before shells came along.”
the team collected specimens for 15 species. Researchers at Brown and Harvard
University sequenced hundreds of thousands of gene sequences and compared them with
what is known about the genetic makeup of other species throughout the mollusk
trying to understand how these species are related, their evolutionary relationships.
We do this by analyzing the conserved parts of their genomes and constructing
an evolutionary tree,” said Stephen Smith, a postdoctoral researcher at Brown
and the paper’s first author, who designed the genetic computational analysis.
authors include Freya Goetz, Feehery, and Smith at Brown; Wilson from the
Australian Museum and Scripps Institution of Oceanography; Greg Rouse from
Scripps; and Sonia Andrade and Gonzalo Giribet from Harvard.
National Science Foundation, Scripps, the University of California Ship Funds,
the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and the Carlsberg Foundation funded the
-- Brown University and Mario Aguilera
October 27, 2011