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Our understanding of evolution would be incomplete without knowledge of what, deep down, determines the traits of an organism and, crucially, how those traits are passed from parent to offspring. This episode, we discuss the foundational field of Genetics.
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Genetics is, broadly speaking, the study of genes. And genes are, generally speaking, sections of DNA that code for specific features within a cell.
The basics: DNA is a type of molecule found in the cells of living organisms. The interaction between DNA and other molecules inside the cell leads to the production of proteins that perform the tasks needed within a cell. DNA is packaged into complexes called chromosomes, and a section of DNA that can be linked to a certain function within the cell is called a gene. The entire collection of DNA inside an organism’s cell is called a genome. Genomes can look quite different from one organism to another, and even from cell to cell within an organism.
Throughout the history of genetic science, one of the biggest questions driving research has been: how do organism’s inherit traits from their parents? It’s pretty common knowledge that offspring share features with their parents, but exactly what produces those traits and how offspring inherit them was a big puzzle for a long time. The answer turned out to be (in part) DNA. And since the inheritance of traits is a key part of the evolution of life over time, genetics has become one of the central pillars of the modern study of evolution.
Genomes are very complex, and so are the ways they change over time. From one generation to the next, there are many ways organisms’ DNA can build up changes, including mutations caused by outside effects; errors that occur while cells split and duplicate their DNA; the “shuffling” of DNA during cellular reproduction; and even a process called lateral gene transfer, where unrelated organisms swap genes (this is most common in bacteria). All of these processes contribute variation to DNA, making every individual organism’s genome distinct from every other, and that variation allows for evolution over time.
All this change leaves evidence behind in genomes, which scientists can use to decipher evolutionary history. By comparing genomes (typically specific parts of genomes) between organisms, we can interpret which species are more closely or distantly related, just like we do with anatomical features. We also examine rates and patterns of genetic change to better understand the unique evolutionary history of each lineage of life. And if we combine genetic data with fossil data (and sometimes ancient DNA), we can even make estimates about when certain major evolutionary events happened in the distant past using a technique called a molecular clock.
Featured image from Zephyris, CC BY-SA 3.0
From Mendel to epigenetics: History of genetics
The Molecular Clock and Estimating Species Divergence
If you enjoyed this topic and want more like it, check out these related episodes:
- Episode 34 – Ancient DNA
- Episode 35 – De-extinction
- Episode 44 – Hybridization
- Episode 56 – Evolution of Evolutionary Theory
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