Calibrating the Tree of Life: fossils, molecules and evolutionary timescales
This week in the macroevolution journal club we will read a paper: "Calibrating the Tree of Life: fossils, molecules and evolutionary timescales", Forest, 2009.
Background: Molecular dating has gained ever-increasing interest since the molecular clock hypothesis was proposed in the 1960s. Molecular dating provides detailed temporal frameworks for divergence events in phylogenetic trees, allowing diverse evolutionary questions to be addressed. The key aspect of the molecular clock hypothesis, namely that differences in DNA or protein sequence between two species are proportional to the time elapsed since they diverged, was soon shown to be untenable. Other approaches were proposed to take into account rate heterogeneity among lineages, but the calibration process, by which relative times are transformed into absolute ages, has received little attention until recently. New methods have now been proposed to resolve potential sources of error associated with the calibration of phylogenetic trees, particularly those involving use of the fossil record.
Scope and Conclusions: The use of the fossil record as a source of independent information in the calibration process is the main focus of this paper; other sources of calibration information are also discussed. Particularly error-prone aspects of fossil calibration are identified, such as fossil dating, the phylogenetic placement of the fossil and the incompleteness of the fossil record. Methods proposed to tackle one or more of these potential error sources are discussed (e.g. fossil cross-validation, prior distribution of calibration points and confidence intervals on the fossil record). In conclusion, the fossil record remains the most reliable source of information for the calibration of phylogenetic trees, although associated assumptions and potential bias must be taken into account.