Editorial: In silico Analysis of Phylogenetic Relationship between the Woolly Mammoth and Modern Elephants

Author:  Alexander Patananan

Institution:  UCLA
Date:  January 2008

I heard a story once, of a young boy named Norbert who visited the La Brea Tar Pits, located in Los Angeles, California. One of the many displays they have at the museum is that of a Woolly Mammoth's skeleton. As Norbert stared at this creature amazingly recreated before him, he asked the curator, "How did modern elephants emerge through evolution from the Woolly Mammoth? They obviously look similar, therefore one must have originated from the other!" The curator replied, "First, Norbert, not many people know it, but to say the term evolution' liberally does not mean much since there are six different types of evolution with greatly different meanings and scientific structure. There is cosmic evolution, chemical evolution, stellar and planetary evolution, organic evolution, macroevolution, and microevolution. Now only microevolution has been observed by humans, and hence is real science, while the other five definitions are simply beliefs and hopeful ideas." The term microevolution' is defined as changes on a limited and defined scale. Such changes usually occur as a result of alterations in gene frequency within a specific population over a certain number of generations.

There are currently many ways to observe microevolution. Some of the most common are based on phylogenetic trees derived from mitochondrial or nuclear DNA sequences, in addition to ribosomal-RNA and protein sequences. So how exactly does this work? The basis of this technique is to find sequences which are slow to change over time with respect to other sequences. From this, and computing technology, one can relate organisms together by the amount of changes observed, with more changes meaning greater differences between organisms and greater differences in origin age. In layman's term this can be related to the blueprints of a jet engine used in aerospace. There are certain components of an engine that are crucial for its function based on the laws of physics and chemistry, and are hence slow to change. However, as technology changes to better suite an environment, small alterations will result in the blueprints as to not drastically alter the original plan, but instead to fine tune it to increase efficiency, dependability, etc. As time progresses, more changes will have developed. Now, a jet engine will never evolve into a nuclear propulsion device over time, for instance, but will have changed in small-scale terms such that one can look back and draw conclusions about which changes occurred in what sequence in time. Drawing a diagram with the most related engines close to each other, and the most different engines technologically farther apart results in the creation of a phylogenetic tree.

In his paper "In silico Analysis of Phylogenetic Relationship between the Woolly Mammoth and Modern Elephants," undergraduate researcher Abhiskhek D. Garg from the G. H. Raisoni National College, Pt. Ravishankar Shukla University, in Raipur, India and his advisor R. V. Hippargi, explore the relatedness of African elephants (Loxodonta africana), Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) and Woolly Mammoths. In their study, these researchers used a series of novel in silico methods and techniques to develop phylogenetic trees relating these different elephants. Their results indicate that African elephants are more closely related to Woolly Mammoths than Asian elephants. For a more in depth description of their research, refer to their article in the January 2008 issue of the Journal of Young Investigators.

Written by: Alexander Patananan

Reviewed by: Konrad Sawicki

Published by: Konrad Sawicki