UF study advances ‘DNA revolution,’ tells butterflies’ evolutionary history

July 30th, 2014

Assistant curator of Lepidoptera Akito Kawahara led the yearlong study that revealed monumental discoveries about the evolutionary history of butterflies and moths.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kristen Grace

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — By tracing nearly 3,000 genes to the earliest common ancestor of butterflies and moths, University of Florida scientists have created an extensive “Tree of Lepidoptera” in the first study to use large-scale, next-generation DNA sequencing.

Among the study’s more surprising findings: Butterflies are more closely related to small moths than to large ones, which completely changes scientists’ understanding of how butterflies evolved. The study also found that some insects once classified as moths are actually butterflies, increasing the number of butterfly species higher than previously thought.

“This project advances biodiversity research by providing an evolutionary foundation for a very diverse group of insects, with nearly 160,000 described species,” said Akito Kawahara, lead author and assistant curator of Lepidoptera at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus. “With a tree, we can now understand how the majority of butterfly and moth species evolved.”

Available online and to be published in the August print edition of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, the study builds the evolutionary framework for future ecological and (more…)

Museum researcher uses DNA bar coding to improve tropical butterfly classification

November 1st, 2011

By Danielle Torrent

When Charles Darwin journeyed to the Galapagos Islands in the 1830s, he collected some mysterious birds that later helped shape his theory of evolution by natural selection. Dubbed “Darwin’s finches,” they became famous as an example of adaptive radiation, in which animals evolve from a common ancestor to utilize different ecological niches.

Two centuries later, on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, a Florida Museum of Natural History researcher was attracted to a group of insects he calls “Darwin’s butterflies,” because of their similarly high degree of diversity derived from a common ancestor. But it wasn’t until 20 years after beginning his research on the genus Calisto as a University of Florida Ph.D. student that Andrei Sourakov found the missing link for understanding how the group should be classified.


DNA sequencing unlocks relationships among flowering plants

February 23rd, 2010

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The origins of flowering plants from peas to oak trees are now in clearer focus thanks to the efforts of Florida Museum of Natural History researchers.

A study appearing online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences unravels 100 million years of evolution through an extensive analysis of plant genomes. It targets one of the major moments in plant evolution, when the ancestors of most of the world’s flowering plants split into two major groups.

Together the two groups make up nearly 70 percent of all flowering plants and are part of a larger clade known as Pentapetalae, which means five petals. Understanding how these plants are related is a large undertaking that could help ecologists better understand which species are more vulnerable to environmental factors such as climate change. (more…)

Fla. Museum adds 20,000th specimen to its genetic repository cryogenic freezer

December 7th, 2009

Photos available

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida Museum of Natural History recently added specimen number 20,000 to its Genetic Resources Repository, a nitrogen-cooled freezer with a temperature of minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

The freezer at Dickinson Hall stores tissue samples and DNA preparations from physical specimens in the museum at extremely low temperatures to preserve the integrity of the samples for future research. During a brief ceremony marking the occasion Dec. 2, the temperature gauge read minus 308 degrees Fahrenheit.

“The Florida Museum has the world’s largest comprehensive collection of DNA and tissue samples,” said Pam Soltis, Florida Museum curator of molecular systematics and evolutionary genetics. “It’s unique because it includes specimens of invertebrate, vertebrate and plant species.” (more…)

Florida Museum researchers take part in DNA sequencing for entire Pacific island

December 2nd, 2009

Multimedia available: http://news.ufl.edu/2009/12/02/biocode-project-multimedia/

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida Museum of Natural History researchers are collecting marine invertebrates on the French Polynesian island of Moorea as part of a massive effort to inventory the DNA sequence of every living species there.

The genetic information collected by scientists from the Florida Museum is part of a whole-system approach that will be used to study ecological processes in depth across the entire island. Moorea’s coral reefs in particular are considered crucial indicators of how natural systems respond to climate change.

“Nobody has ever sequenced a single place to this level,” said Gustav Paulay, the project’s team leader for marine invertebrates and the Florida Museum’s curator of marine malacology. “And nobody has ever investigated coral reef biodiversity this thoroughly in one place.” (more…)

UF study: Rapid burst of flowering plants set stage for other species

February 5th, 2009

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A new University of Florida study based on DNA analysis from living flowering plants shows that the ancestors of most modern trees diversified extremely rapidly 90 million years ago, ultimately leading to the formation of forests that supported similar evolutionary bursts in animals and other plants.

This burst of speciation over a 5-million-year span was one of three major radiations of flowering plants, known as angiosperms. The study focuses on diversification in the rosid clade, a group with a common ancestor that now accounts for one-third of the worlds flowering plants. The forests that resulted provided the habitat that supported later evolutionary diversifications for amphibians, ants, placental mammals and ferns.

“Shortly after the angiosperm-dominated forests diversified, we see this amazing diversification in other lineages, so they basically set the habitat for all kinds of new things to arise,” said Pamela Soltis, study co-author and curator of molecular systematics and evolutionary genetics at UFs Florida Museum of Natural History. “Associated with some of the subsequent radiations is even the diversification of the primates.” (more…)

Fla. Museum receives $186,000 as part of international DNA barcoding project

December 17th, 2007

Photo available

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida Museum of Natural History received $186,000 from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Tuesday to identify and prepare 25,000 marine specimens as part of a new international DNA barcoding project.

Florida Museum invertebrate zoology researchers will analyze specimens from about 5,000 species in the museum’s collections for barcoding, or genetic sequencing. Florida Museum Malacology Curator Gustav Paulay expects the project to eventually yield public, online databases for species identification that also will create evolutionary tree diagrams with the click of a button. (more…)

Study first to quantify validity of DNA I.D. tool using marine snails

November 28th, 2005

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A trendy holiday gift within a decade may be a hand-held device that instantly identifies any species from a snippet of animal tissue, says a Florida Museum of Natural History researcher.

That may be possible thanks to scientific advances that include the first test quantifying the effectiveness of a DNA identification tool among brightly colored shells. With an error rate as low as 4 percent, two UF scientists have been able to identify cowries collected from around the world by analyzing tissue samples from the marine organisms and comparing them to a comprehensive catalog of species they compiled.

The findings are published in the December issue of PLOS Biology.