I'm sitting at a cafe in Tbilisi, departing at 4:00 am tomorrow for America. Readers will notice that I've been MIA while working with the second annual Dmanisi Paleoanthropology Field School. I hate to say it but I'm glad I was too busy to blog all the goings-on (though sorry if it disappointed anyone). All in all it was another great year, and we found some great fossils (about which I don't think I have permission to say anything at all). Here's this year's class with their certification of badassery at the site on the last day:
But Dmanisi won't be the subject of this belated eFfing Fossil Friday. I'd like instead to turn to the question of just what fossils are good for. I'm told that in China, fossil teeth were once interpreted as dragons' teeth, and so pulverized and sold as medicine. But what good are they to non-medical science? My recent research interests have come to focus on the relationship between evolution and development. Evolutionary developmental biology ("evo-devo") research has been dominated by studies of genes, gene expression, and model organisms like fruit flies and mice. In such an environment, the question of the relevance of fossils is especially poignant.
But this morning, while planning a human evo-devo course I hope to teach next summer, I stumbled upon a review paper by Rudolf Raff, titled "Written in Stone: Fossils, genes and evo-devo" (2007). I think the abstract sums things up pretty well:
Fossils give evo-devo a past. They inform phylogenetic trees to show the direction of evolution of developmental features, and they can reveal ancient body plans. Fossils also provide the primary data that are used to date past events, including divergence times needed to estimate molecular clocks, which provide rates of developmental evolution. Fossils can set boundaries for hypotheses that are generated from living developmental systems, and for predictions of ancestral development and morphologies. Finally, although fossils rarely yield data on developmental processes directly, informative examples occur of extraordinary preservation of soft body parts, embryos and genomic information.
It seems often that fossils are falling by the wayside. There's a sentiment that there's not much information to be gotten from fossils - they're too incomplete, too few, too inconvenient, at least as compared with extremely high-output data such as that coming from genomics. But Raff is right - we need fossils. Beyond the excellent points Raff raises in the review, I'm working on getting the most out of these seemingly data-poor fossil samples. Because modern computers are so powerful nowadays, I'm using their sheer processing power to test hypotheses about growth and development in fossil samples. These battered bunches of bones are too tiny to be analyzed by traditional methods. But one thing I think is important to take away from this computer-crazy Information Age, is that we now have machines that can handle almost any kind of question one can think to ask, and it's really inspiring. The sequencing and analyses of ancient Neandertal and Denisova genomes (Green et al. 2010, Reich et al. 2010) are excellent examples of the amazing research that can be done with computers and creativity (and probably also a horde of hard-working math majors).
So this eFFF (or Sunday) is not dedicated to any specific fossil or set of fossils, but rather to all fossils, even the crappy fragments. Gaumarjos, fossils: your secrets are not safe from us.
Green, R., Krause, J., Briggs, A., Maricic, T., Stenzel, U., Kircher, M., Patterson, N., Li, H., Zhai, W., Fritz, M., Hansen, N., Durand, E., Malaspinas, A., Jensen, J., Marques-Bonet, T., Alkan, C., Prufer, K., Meyer, M., Burbano, H., Good, J., Schultz, R., Aximu-Petri, A., Butthof, A., Hober, B., Hoffner, B., Siegemund, M., Weihmann, A., Nusbaum, C., Lander, E., Russ, C., Novod, N., Affourtit, J., Egholm, M., Verna, C., Rudan, P., Brajkovic, D., Kucan, Z., Gusic, I., Doronichev, V., Golovanova, L., Lalueza-Fox, C., de la Rasilla, M., Fortea, J., Rosas, A., Schmitz, R., Johnson, P., Eichler, E., Falush, D., Birney, E., Mullikin, J., Slatkin, M., Nielsen, R., Kelso, J., Lachmann, M., Reich, D., & Paabo, S. (2010). A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome Science, 328 (5979), 710-722 DOI: 10.1126/science.1188021
Raff, R. (2007). Written in stone: fossils, genes and evo–devo Nature Reviews Genetics, 8 (12), 911-920 DOI: 10.1038/nrg2225
Reich D, Green RE, Kircher M, Krause J, Patterson N, Durand EY, Viola B, Briggs AW, Stenzel U, Johnson PL, Maricic T, Good JM, Marques-Bonet T, Alkan C, Fu Q, Mallick S, Li H, Meyer M, Eichler EE, Stoneking M, Richards M, Talamo S, Shunkov MV, Derevianko AP, Hublin JJ, Kelso J, Slatkin M, & Pääbo S (2010). Genetic history of an archaic hominin group from Denisova Cave in Siberia. Nature, 468 (7327), 1053-60 PMID: 21179161