Friday, April 11, 2008

Answers and Winners of the Bayblab's Animal Evolution Challenge!

Ok people, as promised it’s time for the answers to the Bayblab’s recent evolution challenge! The task was to determine whether certain organisms were more, less or equally related to us humans than the model organism Drosophila melanogaster. Thanks to everyone who gave the challenge a shot, to Nimravid and Larry Moran for sending over participants from their blogs (both worth checking out). As many of you noticed, this seemingly simple task is a lot more difficult than it seems on first glance (and second, third and fourth glances). That was the point. I certainly would have flunked the challenge had I not myself devised it whilst staring at a phylogenetic tree. (Even with the tree I find it difficult). I was interested to see how others would fare.

I chose the comparison to Drosophila for two reasons. First it is an intensely-studied model organism. This means that Drosophila geneticists are constantly trying to convince us that their flies are virtually identical to humans (due to evolutionary conservation of molecular pathways and so forth) and therefore highly relevant to biomedical research. Second, many of the obvious physical characteristics of arthropods like Drosophila confound their true evolutionary relationship to humans and vertebrates in general. Until recently, I had a vague notion in my head that flies belonged to some sort of phylogenetic group of things with limbs, bodies, heads and eyes. It was just that flies don’t have backbones, and we do. I remember being shocked a couple years ago when a visiting speaker declared that sea urchins were a better model for studying development because they were so much more related to us than D. melanogaster. Turns out she was right. According to phylogeny, it would seem that many of the macroscopic similarities between humans and flies are examples of parallel or convergent evolution.

So this brings me to the main point of the challenge and the key to solving most of the questions. Drosophila melanogaster and Homo sapiens belong to phyla from opposite sides of two major branches of the animal tree, the deuterostomes and the protostomes. These lines split off from a common bilateran ancestor around 670 million years ago. The main features that distinguish these groups of phyla are embryological, like which hole becomes the anus and so forth.

At any rate, D. melanogaster belongs to the arthropoda (insects), which share a common protostomian ancestor with a diverse crowd of phyla that includes the molluscs (ie clams, snails, squid, octopuses) the nematodes (roundworms) and annelids (earthworms, leeches). On our side (the deuterostomes) we have the chordates (includes all animals with notochords like the tunicates and the lancelet, as well as all vertebrates) as well as the echinoderms (includes the sea urchin, starfishes and sea cucumbers).

So with this in mind most of the questions can be answered. Deuterostome species share a more recent common ancestor with each other than they do with the protostomes, so we are more similar to each other than to D. Melanogaster (a protostome). Falling in to this category are 1) starfishes, 2) the spotted salamander 7) the tunicate, Botrylloides violaceus, 8) the lancelet and 10) the yellowfin tuna. On the other hand, sharing a more recent common ancestor with the arthropods, other members of the protostomians are likely to be (roughly) equally similar to us as D. melanogaster is. So equally similar are 4) the common snail and 9) the roundworm C. elegans.

So this leaves: 3) the Palau stinging jellyfish, 5) Trichoplax adhaerens and 6) the cloud sponge, Aphrocallistes vastus. Both we and our protostomian cousins parted ways with these guys before the proto/deuterostome split. So both we humans and Drosphila share a common triploblastic bilateran ancestor that they do not. The major phylum falling into this category is the Cnidaria (jellyfish, corals, anemones). Our ancestry with the Porifera (sponges) and Placozoans (ie the peculiar Trichoplax adhaerens) appears to be an even more ancient one. So, the remaining species 3), 5), 6) are less related to us humans than D. melanogaster is.So, to summarize, the correct answers are as follows:

1) more related to humans D. melanogaster (starfish)

2) more related (salamander)

3) less related (jellyfish)

4) equally related (snail)

5) less related (Trichoplax adherens)

6) less related (sponge)

7) more related (tunicate)

8) more related (lancelet)

9) equally related (roundworm, C. elegans)

10) more related (yellowfin tuna)

11) equally related (squid)

And the winner is…

A three way tie! Between Adrian Thysse FCD, michaelf and windy. Congratulations guys! You got all 11 questions correct. Very impressive. (You must be geniuses, evolutionary biologists, or both). You get to split the karma!

And the runnner up is...Rebecca! Rebecca got only one wrong (#11) and was the fastest to buzz in. Fast and accurate. Very nice. Congratulations to you as well!

Anyway these are the correct answers as I (a lowly “biomedical researcher”) understand phylogeny based mainly on my interpretation of Mayr (What Evolution Is, Mayr 2001). The most recent molecular data as discussed a current Nature paper, (HT windy and Nimravid) seems to support them. (A beautiful animal phylogenetic tree from that paper is available here. Great poster for your wall!) Nonetheless, if anyone has a grievance and wants to make their case, bring it!

Stay tuned, as I’ll be adding a breakdown of the “class’s” answers. This should be interesting. Also, I hope to discuss what this all means with respect to the relative value of Drosophila as a model system for human biology in a future post. Are there organisms we're not paying much attention to that would be better? If you have comments on this topic they would be interesting to hear so feel free to kick it off below.

PS – If you want to look at the answers from commenters on the original post, you’ll have to click on the post title to see them all. Or click here. Seems our comment script is bugging out and spitting out incomplete comment listings in the main page.


The Key Question said...

54.5% - I just passed (by the skin of my teeth).

Just like calculus!

Anonymous said...

ZOMG! I was answering the wrong question. I was matching "Is it more closely related to us or more closely related to Drosophila?" instead of "Are we more closely related to it or more closely to Drosophila?" If you answer the first question I believe my previous answers were correct:

1. Starfish--We're more closely related to it.
2. Salamander--We're more closely related to it.
3. Jellyfish--Drosophila and we are equally related to it.
4. Snail--We are less closely related to it than Drosophila.
5. T. adherens--Drosophila and we are equally related to it.
6. Sponge--Drosophila and we are equally related to it.
7. Tunicate--We are more closely related to it.
8. Lancelet--We are more closely related to it.
9. Roundworm--We are less closely related to it than Drosophila.
10. Tuna--We are more related to it.
11. Squid--We are less closely related to it than Drosophila.

Since multiple people matched my answers, I think a lot of us were answering the wrong question.

The key piece of information in answering these is protostome or deuterostome? Knowing echinoderms are deuterostomes is important, and knowing that tunicates are chordates can also be helpful.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations guys! You got all 11 questions correct. Very impressive. (You must be geniuses, evolutionary biologists, or both).

Thanks! Actually, I mostly used what I learnt back in my 1st year biology classes and luckily those parts of the phylogeny have held up (the most important thing being of course the protostome/deuterostome distinction, as nimravid said). I didn't recognise the placozoan, but was reasonably sure that it's not either a protostome or a deuterostome.

Since multiple people matched my answers, I think a lot of us were answering the wrong question.

I think so too - I was wondering why so many people answered "less" for the other protostomes!

Kamel said...

Your list above doesn't render properly in IE. The comment thing is not new - once a thread gets over a certain number of comments only the most recent are displayed on the main page (I don't know what the threshold is).

Bayman said...

Thanks Kamel, it should be fixed now. Should have known that a list pasted from Microsoft Word wouldn't function properly with Microsoft IE.

You are right, others also interpreted the question this way. Perhaps the brain finds this a more intuitive way of making phylogenetic comparisons, or maybe it's just habitude.

James Goetz said...

I think that all Protostomia would be less. Why not?

Anonymous said...

Probably because you read the question the same way I did. I said less because all protostomes are more closely related to Drosophila than they are to us, but the question actually asked whether we are more closely related to that organism or to Drosophila. Since we're equally related to all protostomes, from that point of view the answer is equal.

James Goetz said...

Okay. I also said that all of the outgroups were equal, but I suppose that those are less. Or am I having another dyslexic moment?

Bayman said...

Right the outgroups are less related to us than drosophila, because the deuterostomes and protostomes share a more recent common ancestor. Yup looks like you answered the question Nimravid and many others did.

TheBrummell said...

I think I also answered the wrong question.

I was trying to answer the question "Is the pictured organism more closely related to humans than to flies (More), or closer to flies than to humans (Less), or are flies and humans equally distant from it (Equal)?"