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Molecular dating in the genomic era

, : Molecular dating in the genomic era. Medecine Sciences 22(4): 374-380

The comparison of DNA and protein sequences of extant species might be informative for reconstructing the chronology of evolutionary events on Earth. A phylogenetic tree inferred from molecular data directly depicts the evolutionary affinities of species and indirectly allows estimating the age of their origin and diversification. Molecular dating is achieved by assuming the molecular clock hypothesis, i.e., that the rate of change of nucleotide and amino acid sequences is on average constant over geological time. If paleontological calibrations are available, then absolute divergence times of species can be estimated. However, three major difficulties potentially hamper molecular dating : (1) a limited sample of genes and organisms, (2) a limited number of fossil references, and (3) pervasive variations of molecular evolutionary rates among genomes and species. To circumvent these problems, different solutions have been recently proposed. Larger data sets are built with more genes and more species sampled through the mining of an increasing number of genomes. Moreover, independent key fossils are identified to calibrate molecular clocks, and the uncertainty on their age is integrated in subsequent analyses. Finally, models of molecular rate variations are constructed, and incorporated in the so-called relaxed molecular clock approaches. As an illustration of these improvements, we mention that the debated age of the animal (bilaterian metazoans) diversification may have occurred between 642-761 million years ago (Mya), roughly 100 Ma before the Cambrian explosion. Among mammals, the initial diversification of major placental groups may have taken place around 100 Mya, well before the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary marking the extinction of dinosaurs.


PMID: 16597406

DOI: 10.1051/medsci/2006224374

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