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Rocks and clocks help unravel the mysteries of ancient Earth

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24 August 2011

Researchers, partly funded by BBSRC, have found that the way in which fossils are used to calibrate the Earth's evolutionary 'molecular clock' is of critical importance - a finding that could help us better understand gaps in the evolutionary timeline. The research is published in Biology Letters today.

The team, led by the University of Bristol with colleagues at University College London, has combined the expertise of molecular biologists and palaeontologists to analyse how the 'molecular clock' and fossil record align to determine how the Earth's environment and living world have co-evolved.

The genes of living animals serve as timekeepers of the planet's history and can be used to determine events that happened millions of years ago, from the origin of ancient life forms to the diverge between humans and chimps.

To estimate the pace at which the hands of the 'molecular clock' tick, it is necessary to 'calibrate' the clock by referencing the fossil record.

Historically, there have been controversial differences between the times predicted by the molecular clock and the fossil record. This is because the hands of the clock start ticking before novel life forms make their way into the rock record. Furthermore, not everything is recorded - the rarity of animals and plants found in the fossil record further serves to create major gaps in the timeline.

The researchers found the way in which fossils are used to calibrate the molecular clock is of critical importance - a fact that has been frequently disregarded in most molecular clock studies attempting to provide a timeline for life's history.

It has become commonplace for molecular biologists to second-guess how fossils can be used to calibrate the molecular clock. However, the findings confirm that this strategy can generate misleading scenarios about the origins of the living world.

Rachel Warnock, the lead researcher from the University of Bristol's School of Earth Sciences, said: "Without being able to place events of the past on a timeline, it becomes difficult to understand how the planet's environment and the living world have co-evolved. Ultimately, the past provides a key to understanding the present and the future of the planet."

As we are approach five decades since the discovery of the molecular clock the team predict a more promising future for unravelling the past.

Rachel added: "If we want to piece together the crucial environmental events that have shaped the planet, it is vital that biologists and palaeontologists continue working together.

"Our next aim is to stimulate further collaboration between palaeontologists and biologists and continue building our vision of Earth's mysterious past.

The research was also funded by the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC). The paper, entitled 'Exploring uncertainty in the calibration of the molecular clock' by Rachel C. M. Warnock and Philip C. J. Donoghue from the University of Bristol and Ziheng Yang from University College London, is published in Biology Letters.

ENDS

Notes to editors

The paper, entitled 'Exploring uncertainty in the calibration of the molecular clock' by Rachel C. M. Warnock and Philip C. J. Donoghue from the University of Bristol and Ziheng Yang from University College London, is published in Biology Letters.

About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M, we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk .
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes .

External contact

Caroline Clancy, Press Officer, University of Bristol

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