In The Field

Burgess Shale Centenary: About a worm

Quote of the day goes to Kevin Peterson of Dartmouth College, who began his talk with a dedication to Wonderful Life, the book that popularized Cambrian creatures. “If it weren’t for Wonderful Life we all wouldn’t be here. Or at least I wouldn’t be,” he said. “I brought this book to a bar in Montanna and read it in one sitting, over 12 beers. I developed my first man crush – I was in love with Simon Conway Morris.” (He means this as a joke, of course… no actual romance here). Conway Morris was one of the researchers who reinterpreted the Burgess Shale fossils in the 1960s, unveiling their truly bizarre characteristics, and is giving a talk here tomorrow… perhaps someone should warn him of Peterson’s unrequited feelings.

Meanwhile Peterson has gone on to work on annelids – which he confesses are really just ‘boring segmented worms’. There has been a problem in the worm world that genetic evidence gave a different sort of family tree than did morphology… in fact genetics seemed to put molluscs and other distinctly non-wormy creatures nested in within marine worms, which was surely not right. Indeed it would have meant there were a bunch of worms missing from the Cambrian fossil record. Peterson’s group has been using micro-RNA evidence to sort it out, showing that the earlier genetic evidence was simply wrong in this part of the family tree (though he still doesn’t know why). Worm dilemma sorted. Micro-RNA analysis, it seems, has a great potential for sorting out such family tree mysteries, though of course you need modern, living species to analyze – it doesn’t exactly help to identify Ediacarian creatures.

Posted on behalf of Nicola Jones

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