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'Living fossils' could inspire advancements in human health

In 1859, Charles Darwin introduced the concept of “living fossils.” He referred to species that remarkably resemble their ancient ancestors, showing little to no observable change over millions of years.

Fast forward to today: a recent study by experts at Yale University sheds light on the genetic mechanisms that underpin this phenomenon. The research offers new perspectives on biodiversity and potential implications for human health.

Gars: the ancient swimmers of today

At the heart of this research is the gar, a ray-finned fish known for its ancient lineage and minimal evolutionary change. The study highlights gars as having the slowest rate of genetic change among all jawed vertebrates.

This slow evolutionary pace is linked to their limited species diversity. It is thought to be driven by an exceptional DNA repair mechanism. This mechanism corrects mutations more efficiently than those seen in other vertebrates.

The genetic enigma of evolutionary stasis

Thomas J. Near, a professor at Yale and the study’s senior author, explained: “Our findings reveal that the slow molecular evolution of gars significantly limits their speciation. This research is the first of its kind to illustrate how a lineage’s intrinsic biological traits can classify it as a living fossil.”

Near, who also serves as the Bingham Oceanographic Curator of Ichthyology at the Yale Peabody Museum, said that understanding gars’ DNA repair mechanisms could have profound implications for human health. This is particularly relevant in the context of cancer research, which often focuses on somatic mutations and the failure of DNA repair mechanisms.

Bridging millions of years: the hybridization phenomenon

The study reveals that gar species have maintained nearly identical structural features to their Jurassic ancestors from about 150 million years ago. This finding is a testament to their status as living fossils.

The research team, led by Chase D. Brownstein, a graduate student at Yale, conducted an extensive analysis. They examined over 1,100 DNA coding regions from 471 jawed vertebrate species.

The findings confirmed that gars evolve up to a thousand times slower than other vertebrate groups. This slow evolution showcases a unique phenomenon.

Paired with instances of hybridization between distinct gar species in Texas’ Brazos and Trinity River systems, it demonstrates their ability to crossbreed despite millions of years of genetic separation.

Evolutionary insights from living fossils

The implications of these findings extend beyond academic interest in ancient fish. The researchers emphasize the significance of living fossils in understanding evolutionary processes and biodiversity.

Furthermore, the study hints at the potential for medical breakthroughs. This is particularly true in the areas of genetic research and the understanding of DNA repair mechanisms.

In essence, the Yale team’s work illuminates the evolutionary story of living fossils like gars. It bridges the gap between our planet’s ancient past and its present biodiversity.

The study also highlights the potential of these ancient creatures to inspire advancements in human health. Additionally, it deepens our understanding of the evolutionary process.

Through meticulous research and analysis, this study not only honors Darwin’s legacy but also opens new avenues for scientific discovery and application.

The research is published in the journal Evolution.


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