An international team of researchers has decoded the genome of a creature whose evolutionary history is both enigmatic and illuminating: the African coelacanth. A sea-cave dwelling, five-foot long fish with limb-like fins, the coelacanth was once thought to be extinct. A living coelacanth was discovered off the African coast in 1938, and since then, questions about these ancient-looking fish popularly known as "living fossils" have loomed large. Coelacanths today closely resemble the fossilized skeletons of their more than 300-million-year-old ancestors. Its genome confirms what many researchers had long suspected: genes in coelacanths are evolving more slowly than in other organisms.
"We found that the genes overall are evolving significantly slower than in every other fish and land vertebrate that we looked at," said Jessica Alfldi, a research scientist at the Broad Institute and co-first author of a paper on the coelacanth genome, which appears in Nature this week. "This is the first time that we've had a big enough gene set to really see that."
Researchers hypothesize that this slow rate of change may be because coelacanths simply have not needed to change: they live primarily off of the Eastern African coast (a second coelacanth species lives off the coast of Indonesia), at ocean depths where relatively little has changed over the millennia.
"We often talk about how species have changed over time," said Kerstin Lindblad-Toh, scientific director of the Broad Institute's vertebrate genome biology group and senior author. "But there are still a few places on Earth where organisms don't have to change, and this is one of them. Coelacanths are likely very specialized to such a specific, non-changing, extreme environment it is ideally suited to the deep sea just the way it is."
Because of their resemblance to fossils dating back millions of years, coelacanths today are often referred to as "living fossils" a term
|Contact: Haley Bridger|
Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard