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News Link • Biology, Botany and Zoology

When Did Insects Evolve?


Our Planet of the Arthropods is dominated by insects, and when and how insects took over the earth is a question that's puzzled naturalists for centuries. In an incredible international effort, 100 scientists combined their molecular, computational biology, statistics, paleontology, and taxonomic expertise to uncover some surprising conclusions about when major groups of insects evolved:

B. Misof, et al. 2014. Phylogenomics resolves the timing and pattern of insect evolution. Science 346 (6210): 763-767.

How do you solve a problem like the insects?

The back story of this research is almost as interesting as the results. Making sense of the diversity of insects in collections has traditionally been a task for a lone expert, usually specializing in just one subset of a group. They become so identified with their study organisms, they may be introduced as "The Ant Man" or "The Wasp Woman." (No taxonomists I know wear spandex tights and capes to work, for which I am profoundly grateful.) With over a million described species, it's not hard to see how someone might spend an entire life trying to make order out of biodiversity chaos.

Taxonomy has a history of conflict and eccentricity, and the entry of new molecular technologies into the world of tiny pins and museum specimens hasn't always been smooth.  When sequencing was expensive and time consuming, the question was "which species should we do next?"  Competition for funding and lab space was brisk.

With advances in both computing and Next-Generation sequencing, the speed and cost of  sequencing dropped enough that scientists can band together and ask bigger questions. Brian Wiegmann of North Carolina State University (Author #74) put this elegantly: "It's not enough to just catalog the books in the library; we want to understand their contents."

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