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NASA-funded Maynooth research project makes evolution breakthough

International research team headed by an NUI Maynooth scientist says the potential for subsequent research using these findings is ‘endless’.

Image: AP Photo/Sang Tan

AN INTERNATIONAL research project led by a scientist at NUI Maynooth says it has made an important breakthrough in the study of animal evolution and origins.

The team, lead by Maynooth-based evolutionary biologist Dr Davide Pisani, says that previous research on the relationships between key animal groups was ‘flawed’.

Pisani has developed a new system of analysis called ‘Signal Dissection’ which the team used to study a group of tiny animals known as ‘water bears‘ (or ‘tardigrades’) which grow to about 1mm in length and have four pairs of clawed limbs:

The researchers found that that the animals, which have existed for over 600 million years, are related to arthropods (such as insects) and not nemotoda (such as roundworms) as was previously thought.

Pisano says that the researchers chose to investigate the 33 species of tardigrades for the study because “we knew that by focusing on the tardigrades we would be studying the most challenging species possible in terms of their genomic characters and the most difficult to analyse and classify as they evolve very fast”.

The team says these findings have serious ramifications for how groups of animals are classified and the understanding of how they evolved.

Pisano’s colleague Lahcen Campbell says that the “potential for subsequent research using our findings is endless”:

At a practical level, our research has the potential to lead to a greater knowledge of how organisms can survive in space, more effective combating of parasites and better methods to protect useful animals such as lobsters or honeybees.

The research team includes scientists from the National History Museum of London, University College London, the University of Montreal, and the University of Modena e Reggio Emilia, and its paper is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). It is being funded by Science Foundation Ireland and NASA.

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