Scientists decipher 3 billion-year-old genomic fossil

December 19, 2010

By Denise Brehm
Civil & Environmental Engineering 

About 580 million years ago, life on Earth began a rapid period of change called the Cambrian Explosion, a period defined by the birth of new life forms over many millions of years that ultimately helped bring about the modern diversity of animals. Fossils help palaeontologists chronicle the evolution of life since then, but drawing a picture of life during the 3 billion years that preceded the Cambrian Period is challenging, because the soft-bodied Precambrian cells rarely left fossil imprints. However, those early life forms did leave behind one abundant microscopic fossil: DNA.

Because all living organisms inherit their genomes — the entire package of hereditary information existing in their DNA and RNA — from ancestral genomes, computational biologists at MIT reasoned that they could use modern-day genomes to reconstruct the evolution of ancient microbes. They combined information from the ever-growing genome library with their own mathematical model that takes into account the ways that genes evolve: new gene families can be born and inherited; genes can be swapped or horizontally transferred between organisms; genes can be duplicated in the same genome; and genes can be lost.

The scientists traced thousands of genes from 100 modern genomes back to those genes’ first appearance on Earth to create a genomic fossil telling not only when genes came into being but also which ancient microbes possessed those genes. The work suggests that the collective genome of all life underwent an expansion between 3.3 and 2.8 billion years ago, during which time 27 percent of all presently existing gene families came into being.

Eric Alm, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Department of Biological Engineering, and Lawrence David, who recently received his PhD from MIT and is now a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows, have named this period the Archean Expansion. A paper about their research was published in Nature online Dec. 19.

Because so many of the new genes they identified are related to oxygen, Alm and David first thought that the emergence of oxygen might be responsible for the Archean Expansion. Oxygen did not exist in the Earth’s atmosphere until about 2.5