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The evolutionary history of birds lies in their genes: extracting historical information from genome-scale data

Carlsbergfondets postdoc-stipendier i Danmark


Birds are one of the most diverse and widespread groups of animals in the planet, but there are great uncertainties regarding the steps that led to this diversity to emerge and the timing of these steps in a geological timescale. The latest technology in sequencing allows the efficient extraction of the complete genomic code for large numbers of organisms of interest. An international collaboration led at the University of Copenhagen is aiming to sequence the complete genome of every species of bird on earth. Modern analysis approaches can compare sequences and teach us about the past forms, speed of evolution, and the timing of the arising of species. This project is about extending the existing methods of analysis of whole genomes, and disentangling the evolutionary history of birds.


Extracting historical information from genomes is critical for our understanding about life on earth. This is because there genomes contain the most basic information about ourselves and about the process that led to the astounding biological diversity we see today. However, in order to infer past events we need good hypotheses of how genomes change through time. This project will test our existing hypotheses, and improve them, by comparing empirical data with computer simulations of genomes. This will help us extract detailed information about evolutionary history from the genome and keep improving our description of genome evolution. Ultimately, genomes will give a detailed picture of how birds evolved to the range of shapes, colours, and body systems that we observe today.


Hypotheses about how genomes can change through time can be expressed using mathematics, allowing us to replicate evolution in the form of a computer simulation. However simple, computer-simulated evolution might have substantial resemblance to biological evolution. By comparing the two types of information, those from simulated genomes versus real genomes, it is possible to find which aspects of our descriptions of evolution are realistic. For example, genomes from animal populations that have been very numerous will have distinct information to those in which populations have been small. Once the true processes that shaped the genome are found (e.g., very large populations), then we can look into the past characteristics of birds, using the appropriate descriptions of evolution.


There are three long term aspects of scientific social responsibility that can be addressed by investigating the history in the genomes of birds. First, this will make a leap in our understanding of how life on earth changes and how genomes shape living forms. Second, this will greatly contribute to teaching how each of the forces of evolution, such as mutation, act to modify living organisms. By exploring the astounding diversity of birds, this project can teach all audiences about the power and mechanisms of evolution. Third, insights into how the past environment contributed to current forms can help predict the fate of existing animals after the modern day modifications that we have made to the earth. In all, learning from genomes provides society with an unabridged view of nature.