11 October 2010

NSF grant given to research aimed at placing ratfish in the 'Tree of Life'

Figuring out the evolutionary relationships of ratfish is the reason behind a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that Dr. Dominique Dagit of Millersville University of Pennsylvania recently received. Dagit, who is the world's leading expert on ratfish diversity and evolution, will contribute to the larger NSF "Tree of Life" project, which aims to create a phylogeny—lines of ancestry—for the 1.7 million described species of life.

Dr. Dagit said, “This project can help answer questions and provide advances in many areas. This sort of research has proven useful in many fields, such as choosing experimental systems for biological research, tracking the origin and spread of emerging diseases, creating pharmaceutical and agrochemical products, targeting biological control of invasive species, and evaluating risk factors for species conservation and ecosystem restoration."

Dagit is one of five principal investigators on a $2.8 million project aimed at understanding the evolutionary relationships of all Chondrichthyans which includes not only ratfish, but also sharks, rays and chimaeras. The Chondrichthyan piece will then contribute to the overall Tree of Life program.

Ratfish keep such a low profile few people have heard of them, and fewer still have ever seen one. More than a century of overfishing and pollution may have contributed to the ascendancy of the ratfish, experts say. But the species isn't a newcomer to waters. Ancient and adaptable, the homely relatives of sharks were abundant enough to be a nuisance for bottom trawlers in the 1940s.

The research on ratfish over the next three years will take Dr. Dagit to Iowa State University, New York and Paris and will focus on the diversity of these marine animals, provide a genealogy of relationships based on DNA sequence comparisons and provide a database of 3-D skeletons.

Jill Paschal | @VegCookin
Jill is the owner of the online vegan bookstore VegCookin. She is a continuing student majoring in Business Management and loves to travel world cultures via cuisine.

Photo credit: cc: flickr.com/photos/cwilso