Published: 12 Dec 2014 | Last Updated: 12 Dec 2014 09:25:20

Knowing and understanding the evolutionary history of birds after the mass extinction of dinosaurs more than 66 million years ago is now a step closer thanks to a unique and ambitions international research project.

The evolutionary relationship of modern birds is one of the most challenging questions in science and is something that has been debated for centuries. Dr Denis Larkin and Dr Marta Farré from the Royal Veterinary College have been investigating the chromosome and genome evolution of birds as part of the Avian Genome Consortium.

The Consortium has sequenced, assembled and compared genomes of 48 bird species, with the aim of understanding the evolutionary history of the 10,000 species of birds that currently inhabit the planet.

This is the largest genomic study of its kind in history involving more than 200 scientists from 80 institutions in 20 countries across the globe.

The initial research findings into the genetic makeup of the 48 bird species, which are being published in Science, have seen researchers develop an avian family tree which genetically maps the evolution of birds back millions of years.

Dr Larkin said: “As scientists, for years we have known that the birds who survived the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs experienced a rapid burst of evolution. But how that evolution related to modern birds has been a mystery, and the molecular details of how those early birds arrived to the 10,000 species we know today are barely known. But this project has helped us answer and better understand some of the most pressing questions on avian evolution.”

Dr Larkin and his team have been investigating the in-depth conservative mode of chromosome evolution in birds. This research has helped reveal the differences in speed of chromosome evolution in various avian groups and connect high rates of genome changes to unique features, such as the ability to learn new songs, details of which are all locked away in a birds’ genetic make-up. But this genome research could also have wider implications beyond avian evolution.

Dr Larkin added: “Whilst this is an extremely important study in the history of avian evolution, such is the size and complexity of this project it could have wider impacts in other areas and disciplines of genome mapping and study. This work could be transferred to the mapping of larger mammals and even humans leading to developments in human evolutionary studies and medical research.”

Another area of research in the project that involved Dr Larkin’s team was how modern birds’ evolution is linked to that of dinosaurs. In collaboration with Prof Darren Griffin and Dr Michael Romanov from the University of Kent, Dr Larkin and Dr Farré found that unlike mammals, birds (along with reptiles, fish and amphibians) have a large number of tiny microchromosomes that tend to be very stable in evolution. These smaller packages of gene-rich material are thought to have been present in their dinosaur ancestors. This study also found that the chicken has the most similar overall chromosome pattern to an avian ancestor, which was thought to be a feathered dinosaur.

Notes to Editors

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The consortium is led by Guojie Zhang of the National Genebank at BGI in China and the University of Copenhagen, Erich D. Jarvis of Duke University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and M. Thomas P. Gilbert of the Natural History Museum of Denmark.

The first findings of the Avian Phylogenomics Consortium are being reported nearly simultaneously in 23 papers -- eight papers in a Dec. 12 special issue of Science and 15 more in Genome Biology, GigaScience and other journals.

The Royal Veterinary College (RVC) is the England's largest and longest established veterinary school and is a constituent College of the University of London. The RVC  offers undergraduate, postgraduate and CPD programmes in veterinary medicine and veterinary nursing and is ranked in the top 10 universities nationally for biosciences.  It is the only veterinary school in the world to hold full accreditation from AVMA, EAEVE, RCVS and AVBC.

A research-led institution, the RVC ranked as the top veterinary school in the Agriculture, Veterinary and Food Science unit of the most recent Research Assessment Exercise with 55% of academics producing 'world class' and 'internationally excellent' research. The College also provides support for the veterinary profession through its three referral hospitals including the Queen Mother Hospital for Animals, Europe's largest small animal hospital, which sees more than 8,000 patients each year.    

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