An international research project led by a scientist at NUI Maynooth says it has made an important breakthrough in the study of animal evolution and origins.
Team leader , Maynooth-based evolutionary biologist Dr. Davide Pisani, says that previous research on the key relationships between animal groups was "flawed".
Pisani and his team have developed a new system called "Signal Dissection" which the team has used to study a group of tiny animals known as "water bears" (or "tardigrades") which grow to about 1mm in length and have four pairs of clawed limbs:
The team has found that the animals, which have existed for over 600 million years, are related to arthropods (such as insects) and not nemotoda (such as roundworms) as was previously thought.
Pisano added that 33 species of tardigrades were investigated for this study because “we knew that by focusing on the tardigrades we would be studying the most challenging species possible in terms of their genomic characters and the most difficult to analyse and classify as they evolve very fast”.
These findings have serious consequences for how groups of animals are classified and the understanding of how they have evolved.
Lahcen Campbell, Pisano’s colleague says that the “potential for subsequent research using our findings is endless”:
"At a practical level, our research has the potential to lead to a greater knowledge of how organisms can survive in space, more effective combating of parasites and better methods to protect useful animals such as lobsters or honeybees".
The research team includes scientists from the National History Museum of London, University College London, the University of Montreal, and the University of Modena e Reggio Emilia, and its paper is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). It is being funded by Science Foundation Ireland and NASA.