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Scientists resolve the evolution of insects

More than 100 researchers from 10 countries collaborated to clarify how insects evolved.

Insects evolved at the same time as the earliest plants on land about 480 million years ago, playing a key role in shaping Earth’s earliest terrestrial ecosystems, according to a new study published today in Science.

The research newly clarifies insect evolutionary history. It shows that insects started flying 400 million years ago, long before any other animal, and at nearly the same time land plants first grew substantially upwards to form forests.

The study is a collaboration of more than 100 researchers from 10 countries through the 1KITE project (1,000 Insect Transcriptome Evolution).

Using molecular data from 144 carefully chosen species, the research gives reliable estimates on the dates of origin and relationships of all major insect groups. This is critical to understanding the millions insect species alive today that shape our environment and both support and threaten our natural resources. 

'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 Professor Bernhard Misof from the Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig in Bonn, Germany, one of those who led the research effort.

‘We can only start to understand the enormous species richness and ecological importance of insects with a reliable reconstruction of how they are related.’

‘Phylogeny forms the foundation for telling us the who, what, when, and why of life,’ says Dr Karl Kjer, Professor from Rutgers University. ‘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.’

‘This is the first large scale study including all insect lineages. It answers many long held questions about the evolution of the world’s largest and most diverse group of animals’, explains Dr Bjoern von Reumont, postdoctoral researcher at the Natural History Museum London and co-author on the paper.

‘It shows that insects are likely to have originated from a little-known group of venomous crustaceans called Remipedia. I collected the remipedes included in this study, cave diving in underwater cave systems on the Yucatan in Mexico.’

The new reconstruction of the insect tree of life was only possible by a cooperation of more than 100 experts in molecular biology, insect morphology, paleontology, insect taxonomy, evolution, embryology bioinformatics and scientific computing.

The consortium was led by Professor Karl Kjer from Rutgers University, State University of New Jersey, USA; Dr Xin Zhou, Deputy Director of the China National GeneBank, BGI-Shenzhen; and Professor Bernhard Misof from the Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig in Bonn, Germany.

‘We wanted to promote research on the little-studied genetic diversity of insects,’ says Dr Xin Zhou, Deputy Director at the China National GeneBank, BGI-Shenzhen, who initiated the project.

‘For applied research, it will become possible to comparatively analyse metabolic pathways of different insects and use this information to more specifically target pest species or insects that affect our resources. The genomic data we studied – the transcriptome showing all of the expressed genes – gives us a very detailed and precise view into the genetic constitution and evolution of the species studied.’

However, analysing a large number of insect transcriptomes posed a major challenge to the 1KITE team. ‘During the planning phase of the project it became clear that the available software would not be able to handle the enormous amount of data,’ relates Dr. Alexis Stamatakis, group leader at the Heidelberg Institute of Theoretical Studies in Germany.

‘The development of novel software and algorithms to handle ‘big data’ such as this is another notable accomplishment of the 1KITE team, and lays a theoretical foundation for future analyses of other very large phylogenomic data sets.’

The 1KITE team’s diverse strengths and strong international cooperation, including museum repositories for vouchering of specimens, results, and metadata, is a blueprint for international excellence in research.

Notes to editors

Relevant images for this release can be downloaded.

  • Phylogenomics resolves the timing and pattern of insect evolution, B Misof et al, is published on 7 November in Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1257570 
  • More information, including a copy of the paper, can be found online at the Science press package at http://www.eurekalert.org/jrnls/sci You will need your user ID and password to access this information. 
  • The 1K (1000) Insect Transcriptome Evolution project (1KITE) has brought together internationally recognised experts in molecular biology, morphology, paleontology, embryology, bioinformatics, and scientific computing in a yet unparalleled way. 1KITE aims to study the transcriptomes (all expressed genes) of more than 1,000 insect species encompassing all recognised insect orders. The resulting data allows for inferring a robust phylogenetic tree of insects and will provide numerous additional insights into insect biology and evolution. Furthermore, the project includes the development of new software for data quality assessment and analysis. For more information, visit www.1kite.org
  • For further information, please contact: Dr Bjorn von Reumont via the Natural History Museum Press Office, Tel: 020 7942 5654 Email: press@nhm.ac.uk
  • Prof. Dr. Bernhard Misof, Head, Centre for Molecular Biodiversity Research (ZMB), Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig - Leibniz Institute for Animal Biodiversity Tel: 0049 228 9122-289 E-Mail: b.misof@zfmk.de (Not for publication)

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