One small way rapid DNA sequencing is revolutionizing our view of life

fruit bat by YoTuT

Holy hybrids Batman! Caribbean fruit bat is a mash-up of three species
[Via Discover Magazine]

Most mammals can trace their origins to a single ancestral species. But in the Caribbean islands of the Lesser Antilles, there is a fruit bat with a far more complex family tree. Artibeus schwartzi’s genome is a hybrid mish-mash of DNA inherited from no less than three separate ancestors. One of these is probably extinct and the other two of which still live on the same island chain. It’s a fusion bat, a sort of fuzzy, winged spork.

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Sequencing of DNA and other technologies have become so cheap that we can now look at the genome information of large numbers of non-human animals. In this case, they looked at almost 240 different bats from 7 different species.

One in particular appears to be a hybridization of 2 different species. But, and here is where it gets interesting, this hybridization resulted in a bat with several characteristics that are quite different from either parent species.

The data indicate that this hybridization took place relatively recently, on geologic scale. The end of the Ice Age brought sea level rises that resulted in the isolation of different bat species on different islands. That is why islands make such great locations for evolution in action, because this isolation is a distinct event and one that is relatively recent.

This isolation disrupted the gene flow between the two parent species, permitting the hybrid of their union to develop into its own species – one that is the dominant bat on its island.

While a hybridization hypothesis had been postulated from this species, only having access to cheap sequencing technology allowed the hypothesis to be confirmed.

I expect to see more of this – evolutionary hypotheses being confirmed by hard genomic data.