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Article: Molecular palaeobiology

Publication: Palaeontology
Volume: 50
Part: 4
Publication Date: July 2007
Page(s): 775 809
Author(s): Kevin J. Peterson, Roger E. Summons and Philip C. J. Donoghue
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How to Cite

PETERSON, K. J., SUMMONS, R. E., DONOGHUE, P. C. J. 2007. Molecular palaeobiology. Palaeontology50, 4, 775–809.

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For more than a generation, molecular biology has been used to approach palaeontological problems, and yet only recently have attempts been made to integrate research utilizing the geological and genomic records in uncovering evolutionary history. We codify this approach as Molecular Palaeobiology for which we provide a synthetic framework for studying the interplay among genotype, phenotype and the environment, within the context of deep time. We provide examples of existing studies where molecular and morphological data have been integrated to provide novel insights within each of these variables, and an account of a case study where each variable has been tackled to understand better a single macroevolutionary event: the diversification of metazoan phyla. We show that the promise of this approach extends well beyond research into the evolutionary history of animals and, in particular, we single out plant evolution as the single greatest opportunity waiting to be exploited by molecular palaeobiology. Although most of our examples consider how novel molecular data and techniques have breathed new life into long-standing palaeontological controversies, we argue that this asymmetry in the balance of molecular and morphological evidence is an artefact of the relative 'newness' of molecular data. In particular, palaeontological data provide unique and crucial roles in unravelling evolutionary history given that extinct taxa reveal patterns of character evolution invisible to molecular biology. Finally, we argue that palaeobiologists, rather than molecular biologists, are best placed to exploit the opportunity afforded by molecular palaeobiology, though this will require incorporating the techniques and approaches of molecular biology into their skill-set.
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