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Fossil database to create cross-discipline collaboration

Open-source resources will help determine evolution's timescale

Field Museum

Have you ever wondered exactly when a certain group of plants or animals first evolved? This week a groundbreaking new resource for scientists went live, and it is designed to help answer just those kinds of questions. Chicago's Field Museum researcher N. Adam Smith, and a team of over twenty paleontologists, molecular biologists and computer programmers from around the world launched The Fossil Calibration Database on February 24. The database will help scientists estimate the timing of the origins of key plants and animals by combining vetted data from the fossil record with DNA sequences. This open-access resource will be available not only to the scientists who helped create it, but to others around the world.

Adam Smith, John Caldwell Meeker Postdoctoral Fellow at The Field, says "This new database is a fundamental step in the effort to accurately date the tree of life. Only when we have accurate estimates of the timing of evolutionary events, can we begin to make detailed inferences about the relative contribution of other factors that have influenced the evolution of life--factors such as climate change."

"Divergence dating" is important for understanding the origin and evolution of biodiversity, but has been hindered by the incorrect use of data from the fossil record, leading to erroneous estimates of evolutionary time. The Fossil Calibration Database addresses this issue by providing molecular biologists with paleontologist-approved data for organisms across the tree of life, allowing molecular biologists to adjust the estimated rates at which DNA changes through time. An initial collection of 120 fossil calibrations span the "Tree of Life," providing minimum ages for groups as varied as mollusks (532 million years), penguins (60.5 million years), and humans (6.5 million years).

The Fossil Calibration Database is linked to a rapid online publication, The Fossil Calibration Series, that is part of the open-access, online journal Palaeontologia Electronica, which will provide updates and additions to the database in the coming years.

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The development of The Fossil Calibration Database and The Fossil Calibration Series was funded by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, a non-profit science center dedicated to cross-disciplinary research in evolution. Funded by the National Science Foundation, NESCent is jointly operated by Duke University, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University.

The Database and Calibration Series was co-led by Daniel T. Ksepka (Bruce Museum; Field Museum Research Associate) and James F. Parham (Cal State Fullerton; former postdoctoral researcher with the Biodiversity Synthesis Center, The Field Museum). This work was also supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation funding of the Biodiversity Synthesis Group of the Encyclopedia of Life and a BioSynC Synthesis Meeting (to J.F.Parham).

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