New hope for very old molecular phylogeny …

Although DNA has been obtained from a number of fossils, including Neanderthals, its complexity more or less rules out any being preserved in a useful state beyond a few hundred thousand years ago. However, information about molecular relatedness also emerges from protein sequences, albeit with less chance of detailed comparisons. Collagen from bone is a potential resource for palaeobiologists, and fossils as old as the Jurassic Period have provided useable sequences. Prime targets are large extinct animals, as the greater the mass of a bone, the better the chance that it preserves some. Two irresistible beasts are the American mastodon (Mammut americanum) and T. rex (Organ, C.L. et al. 2008. Molecular phylogenetics of mastodon and Tyrannosaurus rex. Science, v. 320, p. 499). Unsurprisingly, the research group from Harvard, Boston and North Carolina, found that a Pleistocene mastodon contains proteins closely similar to those of African elephants. The T. rex, however, has a passably close relationship to the ancestral chicken, the South Asian Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) and the ostrich (Struthio camelus).

In fact, both connections were expected by the team, for their research set out to show that it is possible to extract intact parts of protein sequences from fossil bones. The matches confirm their hopes, and seem set to launch attempts at resolving evolutionary relationships among vertebrates that hitherto have depended on morphology alone.

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