Finals week is upon me, and I should be working on piles of paper work right now, but I need a break … and I have to vent some frustration with the popular press coverage of an important scientific event this week, the publication of a draft of the platypus genome. Over and over again, the newspaper lead is that the platypus is "weird" or "odd" or worse, they imply that the animal is a chimera — "the egg-laying critter is a genetic potpourri — part bird, part reptile and part lactating mammal". No, no, no, a thousand times no; this is the wrong message. The platypus is not part bird, as birds are an independent and (directly) unrelated lineage; you can say it is part reptile, but that is because it is a member of a great reptilian clade that includes prototherians, marsupials, birds, lizards and snakes, dinosaurs, and us eutherian mammals. We can say with equal justification that we are part reptile, too. What's interesting about the platypus is that it belongs to a lineage that separated from ours approximately 166 million years ago, deep in the Mesozoic, and it has independently lost different elements of our last common ancestor, and by comparing bits, we can get a clearer picture of what the Jurassic mammals were like, and what we contemporary mammals have gained and lost genetically over the course of evolution.
We can see that the journalistic convention of emphasizing the platypus as an odd duck of a composite creature is missing the whole point if we just look at the title of the paper: "Genome analysis of the platypus reveals unique signatures of evolution." This is work that is describing the evidence for evolution in a comparative analysis of the genomes of multiple organisms, with emphasis on the newly revealed data from the platypus.
Continue reading "The platypus genome" (on Pharyngula)