OHIO STATE SHARES NEARLY $3 MILLION TO STUDY EVOLUTION OF MARINE LIFE
COLUMBUS , Ohio – Sea creatures such as jellyfish and corals may offer evidence of how the entire animal kingdom evolved.
The National Science Foundation has awarded $2.85 million to scientists at Ohio State University and six other institutions to spend the next five years studying the evolution of Cnidaria, a division of the animal kingdom that includes jellyfish, sea anemones and corals.
Leading the Ohio State effort is Meg Daly, an assistant professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology and an expert on sea anemones. She is joined by Dan Janies, an assistant professor of biomedical informatics at Ohio State.
“My part of this project is to study relationships among sea anemones, corals and their kin, and to explore evolution of nematocysts,” Daly said. Nematocysts are stinging capsules unique to animals in Cnidaria, and responsible for the painful sting delivered by jellyfish.
The Cnidaria project is one of several such efforts in the NSF's “Assembling the Tree of Life” program. The Foundation has earmarked nearly $30 million for the program, in which it has asked scientists to build a genealogical map based on the genetics of all known life on earth.
There are roughly 1.7 million described plant and animal species. NSF wants to make a genetic map of all of them, to ultimately understand how all animal and plant species are interrelated.
Daly, Janies and their colleagues at other universities are charged with creating a map – a kind of family tree – that shows how the creatures in Cnidaria are genetically related to each other.
The group will design this map based on DNA sequences they extract from 1,800 Cnidarian species (there are more than 11,000 species in this group.) The researchers will use computer algorithms and supercomputing facilities to analyze the information encoded in the DNA. They will then use this data to reconstruct the cnidarian evolutionary tree.
For starters, the researchers want to know if the ancestor to all cnidarians was a single animal or a colony of animals (many cnidarians, such as corals and Portuguese man-of-wars, are colonies of much smaller individuals.)
“Reconstructing a cnidarian evolutionary tree is important for our understanding of the patterns and processes that accompanied the early diversification of life,” Daly said. “Cnidaria is at the base of the tree of the animal kingdom.
“This group is of particular interest because it is one of the most primitive and longest-lived lineages of animals,” she continued. “From an evolutionary standpoint, it comprises one of two major branches of the animal family tree – the other one includes snails, worms, bugs, crabs, starfish and vertebrates.”
Evolutionary biologists believe that ancestors of today's Cnidarians were abundant some 630 million years ago, making them among the earliest animals on the planet. As a group, these sea creatures predated fish by about 200 million years and insects by about 300 million years.
Daly and Janies are working with lead investigator Paulyn Cartwright, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas, and with researchers from the Smithsonian Institution; Pomona and Harvey Mudd colleges, both in Claremont, Calif.; Duke and Northern Illinois universities; and the University of the Virgin Islands.
Contact: Meg Daly, (614) 247-8412; Daly.firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Holly Wagner, (614) 292-8310; Wagner.email@example.com