University of Western Australia: Decoding DNA may hold clues to how life on earth began

In a world-first, scientists from The University of Western Australia are part of an international research team that has developed the first classification system of living organisms across the globe, according to how their DNA folds up inside cell nuclei.

The classification system provides insight into the DNA make-up of organisms across the planet, but it also shows how cell DNA might have mutated in the past, making it possible for one species to evolve into an entirely different species over time.

It could reveal how humans might have evolved from apes, and if there is merit to this well-known theory and other theories surrounding the dramatic evolution of life on Earth.

The research, published in Science, was carried out through DNA Zoo, a global initiative that analyses DNA from different species to help researchers, leaders and policy-makers better understand species through their DNA as well as threats to their survival.

DNA Zoo Australia Director Associate Professor Parwinder Kaur said the classification system divided living creatures on the planet into one of two categories, Type I or Type II, based on how their chromosomes folded up inside cells. Type I is seen in mushrooms and mosquitoes while type II is seen in humans and sea hares.

“From lab experiments and physical simulation analyses, we established that over the course of evolution, species can switch back and forward between type I and type II,” Professor Kaur said.

“This is quite fascinating, and it seems entirely possible that a human cell could be turned into a structure typical of a fly from mutation. It also lends credibility to many theories of evolution that have baffled scientists for decades.”

Professor Kaur said a real life example of significant DNA mutation could be seen in the muntjac, a type of water deer.

“The Chinese muntjac has 46 chromosomes and is type 2 for its chromosome layout in cells, however it is closely related to the Indian muntjac which only has six, much longer chromosomes and is type 1.”

Professor Kaur said the research offered new insights into how life is driven by DNA and that so much boils down to one simple mechanism, to define who we are.

“This is an exciting step forward to help us understand how we evolved in the past and how the life forms might evolve in the future,” she said.

DNA Zoo is an international consortium that includes Baylor College of Medicine, the National Science Foundation-supported Center for Theoretical Biological Physics (CTBP) at Rice University, The University of Western Australia, SeaWorld and is supported by the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre which enables these big data driven discoveries.

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