The initial report on their groundbreaking work is the cover story of the Nov. 7 issue of Science, the world’s largest general science journal.
What the researchers found is that insects originated at the same time as the earliest terrestrial plants about 480 million years ago, suggesting that insects and plants shaped the earliest terrestrial ecosystems together.
They found that when the dinosaurs ruled the earth, dragonflies and damselflies had already been there for many millions of years. They also determined that insects developed wings long before any other animal could do so, and at nearly the same time that land plants first grew substantially upwards to form forests.
Karl Kjer, a professor in the Department of Ecology Evolution and Natural Resources, New Brunswick, was one of the three co-directors of the team. Thanks to the success of the project, according to Kjer, “many previously intractable questions are now resolved, while many of the 'revolutions' brought about by previous analyses of smaller molecular datasets have contained errors that are now being corrected.”A second co-director was Xin Zhou, who earned his doctorate at Rutgers in 2007 and now is head of the National Bio-resource Bank of Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), China. BGI is the world’s largest genomic sequencing center, and thanks to Zhou, BGI allocated millions of dollars of resources for the project.
Why is it important to understand the evolution of insects? “Insects are diverse, economically and ecologically important organisms,” explains Jessica Ware, an assistant professor of biology at Rutgers University-Newark who also worked on the team. “The biodiversity of insects is huge."
While life on earth began in the water, the first creatures on land and in the air were insects, she notes. “Whatever people do, insects did it first. They waged war, they took slaves, they learned to work cooperatively, they flew, they farmed.” Humans developed so many millions of years after the first insects that “people have been squashing bugs since humans appeared on earth.”
During the project, known as 1KITE (1,000 Insect Transcriptome Evolution) scientists from 10 nations worked together to uncover relationships among insects as well as knowledge of their behaviors, flight, and more."Insects are the most species-rich organisms on earth. They are of immense ecological, economic and medical importance and affect our daily lives, from pollinating our crops to vectoring diseases,” says Bernhard Misof, the third co-director, who heads the Department of Molecular Biodiversity Research at the Zoologisches Forschungsmuseum Alexander Koenig in Bonn, Germany. “We can only start to understand the enormous species richness and ecological importance of insects with a reliable reconstruction of how they are related.”
The 1KITE team had to develop new, advanced methods for analyzing huge sets of the genetic data derived from examining DNA in modern insects and comparing it to fossil records, formulating new mathematical calculations and using massive super-computers in the process. It was Ware who headed this task of estimating the ages when the insects evolved.
“I ran the largest dating analyses that have ever been done, as far as we know." she says. "With these comprehensive dating analyses, we are now able to say when flight, herbivory, and parasitism evolved, and much more." Ancestors of modern winged insects such as dragonflies were the first flying organisms, and we can say how old they are – it’s hundreds of millions of years – thanks to the dating work I led.”
Rutgers University’s role in 1KITE was invaluable, according to Ware. “From start to finish, Rutgers has been fundamental in this project. Without Rutgers this would not have happened.”
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