To reach their conclusion, published in Nature News and Biology Letters, the research team looked at a newly discovered class of molecules called microRNA. Most of the genetic material or DNA that scientists study provides the code for building proteins, large molecules that form an essential part of every organism. But microRNAs are much smaller molecules that can switch genes on and off and regulate protein production. They are also remarkably similar within related animal groups and provide important clues for identification.
“Different microRNAs develop fairly rapidly in different animal species over time, but once developed, they then remain virtually unchanged,” said Kevin Peterson, a paleobiologist at MDIBL and Dartmouth College. “They provide a kind of molecular map that allows us to trace a species’ evolution.”
Peterson worked with Ben King, a bioinformatician at MDIBL. “My role in the study was to enhance our software so we could find new and unique microRNAs in the lizard genome,” King said. “We identified 77 new microRNA families, and four of these turned out to also be expressed in the painted turtle. So we had the evidence we needed to say that turtles are a sister group to lizards and not crocodiles.”
Though few creatures have been as puzzling as the turtle, the research team plans to use its microRNA analysis on other animals to help determine their origins and relationships as well. It is also developing a web-based platform to share the software with other researchers around the world.
In addition to King and Peterson, the research team included Tyler Lyson and Jacques Gauthier from Yale University, Eric Sperling from Harvard University, and Alysha Heimberg from Dartmouth College.
Tyler R. Lyson, Erik A. Sperling, Alysha M. Heimberg, Jacques A. Gauthier, Benjamin L. King and Kevin J. Peterson. 2011. MicroRNAs support a turtle + lizard clade. Biology Letters doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0477.