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The 'genetics of sand' may shed new light on evolutionary process over millions of years

University of Southampton

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Credit: The University of Southampton

An evolutionary ecologist at the University of Southampton, is using 'grains of sand' to understand more about the process of evolution. Dr Thomas Ezard is using the fossils of microscopic aquatic creatures called planktonic foraminifera, often less than a millimetre in size, which can be found in all of the world's oceans. The remains of their shells now resemble grains of sand to the naked eye and date back hundreds of millions of years.

A new paper by Dr Ezard, published today (9 August 2013) in the journal Methods in Ecology & Evolution, opens the debate on the best way to understand how new species come into existence (speciation). The debate concerns whether fossil records such as those of the planktonic foraminifera, contain useful evidence of speciation over and above the molecular study of evolution. Molecular evolution traditionally uses evidence from species that are alive today to determine what their ancestors may have looked like, whereas this new research promotes the importance of using fossil records in conjunction with the molecular models.

Dr Ezard, from Biological Sciences and the Institute for Life Sciences at Southampton, says: "Because planktonic foraminifera have been around for many millions of years and rocks containing groups of their species can be dated precisely, we can use their fossils to see evidence of how species evolve over time. We can also see how differences between individual members of species develop and, in theory, how a new species comes into existence.

"The controversial hypothesis we test is that the processes leading to a new species coming into existence provoke a short, sharp burst of rapid genetic change. This is controversial because it is very difficult to detect these new species coming into existence accurately without the fossil data; it is more commonly determined from assumptions made from the study of species alive today using molecular evidence."

In the paper, Dr Ezard and colleagues, Dr Gavin Thomas from the University of Sheffield and Professor Andy Purvis from Imperial College London, highlight the importance of using fossil and molecular evidence to study evolution. Their intention is that the use of both types of data will become widespread in the future study of evolution. To support his research, Dr Ezard has received an Advanced Fellowship from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to study how variation among individuals generates variation among species. He will conduct this interdisciplinary research in the Centre for Biological Sciences at the University, in close collaboration with researchers from Ocean and Earth Science at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.

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Notes for editors:

1. To see a video of Dr Thomas Ezard discussing his research and his NERC fellowship, please visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7AzaJh0sYL4

2. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Their work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. They coordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more.

NERC is a non-departmental public body. They receive around £370 million of annual funding from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Working internationally, they have bases at some of the most hostile places on the planet. They run a fleet of research ships and aircraft and invest in satellite technology to monitor gradual environmental change on a global scale. They provide forewarning of, and solutions to, the key environmental challenges facing society.

Their research contributes to a strong UK economy and improves people's lives. They encourage public engagement with environmental science and the benefits it brings.

3. The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship across a wide range of subjects in engineering, science, social sciences, health and humanities.

With over 23,000 students, around 5000 staff, and an annual turnover well in excess of £435 million, the University of Southampton is acknowledged as one of the country's top institutions for engineering, computer science and medicine. We combine academic excellence with an innovative and entrepreneurial approach to research, supporting a culture that engages and challenges students and staff in their pursuit of learning.

The University is also home to a number of world-leading research centres including the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, the Optoelectronics Research Centre, the Institute for Life Sciences, the Web Science Trust and Doctoral training Centre, the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, the Southampton Statistical Sciences Research Institute and is a partner of the National Oceanography Centre at the Southampton waterfront campus. http://www.southampton.ac.uk

For further information, photos and video footage, please contact:

Charlotte Woods
Media Relations, University of Southampton
Tel: 023 8059 2128
email: c.woods@soton.ac.uk

http://www.soton.ac.uk/mediacentre/

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