Molecules and Evolution
Name: Maria S.
Date: April 2003
What types of molecules can be used to determine the evolutionary
relationship among organisms based on biochemical comparisons?
Thus far, studies of evolutionary relationships at the molecular level have focused on proteins and nucleic acids. Protein work was undertaken first due to the earlier availability of protein separation technology that could be applied to such studies. As an example, one can observe the location of an alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme in a nondenaturing electrophoresis gel, the position of which will be in large measure a function of the electrical field put across the gel (with respect to degree and time) and the net charge of the enzyme. Mutations in the gene that encodes the enzyme that result in amino acid exchanges that impact the net charge of the enzyme will be detected in the molecule streaming faster or slower in the gel. In this fashion, evolutionary molecular biologists, such as the late Alan Wilson of UC-Berkeley, could compare the evolutionary relationships of wide ranging sets of organisms, and
then compare the molecular data to evolutionary trees based on morphological observations, for example.
Wilson's work itself morphed with the availability of separation technologies
applicable to the study of nucleic acids, especially once cloning methods rendered
gene isolations and sequencing a fairly routine matter, within limits. Wilson started
such work, and it has been extended by others since his passing, by, for example,
Vince Sarich and colleagues, also located at UC-Berkeley. Evolution, being the study of
gene mutations, and the results of such mutations, can be directly assessed at the
genetic level, on a gene by gene basis. With the advent of nucleic acid technologies,
the evolutionary rates can be assessed not only by mutations that have a visible
impact, but, as well, mutations that are "silent" in that no difference results in the
One last point to make is that the evolutionary trees based on molecular studies
frequently reflect what morphological-based studies have reported, at least with
respect to the big picture. But it is my impression that the molecular studies
frequently find differences in the details, and are very usefully employed in expanding
our understanding of the many small changes in an organism's genome that can lead to
new species, which itself is a very big change.
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Update: June 2012