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The Statesman


Anatomical research project embraces new technologies

Maureen O'Leary, a member of the research team, is a professor of anatomical science at SBU. Photo Credit: Stony Brook University
Maureen O’Leary, a member of the research team, is a professor of anatomical science at SBU. Photo Credit: Stony Brook University

Technology like new software programs, social media and crowdsourcing has recently helped to connect the scientific research community worldwide and bring about progress in understanding the history of life.

Six years ago, a team of 23 international mammal evolution researchers linked up not only to answer some important scientific questions but to develop an effective way to share data with each other. From that came MorphoBank, an online, cloud-based database and workspace more advanced than any previously existing tool.

Now, the American Museum of Natural History, WNYC’s Radiolab and are collaborating on an endeavor to have the public nickname Protungulatum donnae, the placental mammal common ancestor the team was able to identify thanks to MorphoBank, said Senior Director of Publicity at New York Public Radio Jennifer Houlihan.

Placental mammals, the branch of mammals that carry their young to term in a placenta, are a diverse group, ranging from whales to bats to horses and, not to mention, human beings. Given the wide variety within the group, there was a desire in the scientific community to discover the common ancestor that connects the nearly 4,000 species.

The team began by working, sometimes virtually, to create MorphoBank and what is essentially a “giant spreadsheet with species going across and features going down, like ‘presence of a certain tooth,’” Maureen O’Leary, leader of the project and an associate professor in the department of anatomical sciences in the School of Medicine, said.

What resulted was the world’s largest system of genetic and fossil data.

According to O’Leary, before MorphoBank, plenty of computer software existed for working with DNA, thanks in large part to the Human Genome Project, but nothing sophisticated was available to anatomists conducting work based on the fossil record.

John Wible, a member of the project and curator of mammals at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, said in an email that the project “could not have been done without a tool like MorphoBank,” a testament to its importance.

Artist Carl Buell's rendition of Protungulatum donnae, the common ancestor. Photo Credit: Stony Brook University
Artist Carl Buell’s rendition of Protungulatum donnae, the common ancestor. Photo Credit: Stony Brook University

After compiling the extensive data, the scientists ran an algorithm that created a tree, part of an effort by the National Science Foundation (NSF) called the Assembling the Tree of Life program. From there, they were able to trace back to the placental mammal common ancestor and identify its features.

The creature they identified was between the size of a mouse and the size of a rat, with a white-colored underbelly and a darker back. It ate insects and had a fleshy nose, a full set of teeth and a long, furred tail, O’Leary said. An artist, Carl Buell, has since drawn a rendition of it.

This tree also provided evidence that placental mammals developed later than commonly thought.

Within the scientific community, there exists an ongoing discussion of ‘rocks vs. clocks’ in regards to whether fossil-based data or DNA-based data should be used in models to reconstruct the timeline of life.

The molecular clock method, which is DNA-based, purports that placental mammals came about before the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs, which occurred some 65 million years ago. But the recently published study, based on fossils, concluded that, in fact, they did not develop until 36 million years later than genetic data alone had estimated.

And since the team’s findings were published in the journal “Science” on Feb. 8, 2013, there’s been a call from the public to come up with a more colloquial name to call Protungulatum donnae by.

“It’s something that we hadn’t thought about, but it’s come up a ton since the paper appeared,” O’Leary said.

She said that names will be solicited, perhaps via Twitter, and then voted on.

Houlihan said the initiative would likely launch in the next week or so, but at press time no definitive date was available.

The National Science Foundation is also funding a new project, which O’Leary is part of, to use crowdsourcing to allow the public to participate in research.

“The cry that anatomists keep coming back to is that our work takes so long and that’s why it’s hard to do,” O’Leary said. “The National Science Foundation thought ‘Is there anything we can try that’s big and bold to help change that?’ And in a workshop, this idea came up.”

Crowdsourcing is the concept of soliciting work or raising funds from a group of people, usually online. It is typically used for tedious work or to fundraise for projects.

The idea, O’Leary said, is to ask the public to complete small tasks, like scoring data and solving problems, much like the work she and her team did to trace back to the placental mammal common ancestor. The tasks are simple, but because there are so many of them, they can be rather time consuming.

The NSF is considering using Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing marketplace run by Amazon, according to O’Leary.

“You might get paid only one penny per task, but you might do a thousand of them and then you make a little money,” O’Leary said.

According to O’Leary, beta testing on the project should launch sometime next spring.

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