Using Molecular Data to Study Evolution
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Using Molecular Data to Study Evolution

In the latest decades, molecular data is often used in evolutionary biology. This article details some of the advantages of this type of data.

From Phenotype to Molecule

For a long time, it was not possible to study genes directly, and evolutionary biology was largely confined to investigating how phenotypes change with the passage of time. In the latest decades, however, the advances in molecular genetics have made it possible to study evolutionary change directly by analyzing protein and nucleic acid sequences.

Advantages of Molecular Data

Such molecular data offer some significant advantages for studying the process of evolution, and the patterns that can be discerned in molecular variation. Seven clear advantages are:

  • Molecular data is, in essence, genetic. Evolution is the result of genetic change over time and anatomical, physiological and other traits often have a genetic basis, but the relation between the genes and the trait can be quite complex. Molecular data, however, has a pretty clear genetic basis that is easier to interpret.
  • Molecular data research can be used with all organisms. Whereas early research often focused on traits that were confined to a certain group of organisms (for example, human blood type), molecular data can be gathered from all living organisms.
  • Molecular data can provide access to a huge amount of genetic variation. Through molecular research methods, an enormous amount of data can be accessed. Entire genomes can be sequenced, providing large pools of genetic information about the involved organisms.
  • Molecular data allows the comparison of all organisms. Attempting to understand the evolutionary history of distantly related organisms is often difficult as they have few characteristics in common. However, all organisms seem to have some molecular traits in common, such as ribosomal RNA sequences and some fundamental proteins, which makes comparing distantly related organisms a lot easier.
  • Molecular data can be quantified. Sequence data is precise, accurate, and quantifiable, which improves the ability to objectively asses evolutionary relationships between organisms. 
  • Molecular data often provide information about the evolutionary process. Important clues about the process of evolution can be gathered from molecular data. A mutation, for example, can be traced back through time, revealing its origin.
  • Molecular data leads to the development of a large and still growing database. All the DNA and protein sequence data can be gathered in a database, which can be used for making evolutionary comparisons and to infer mechanisms of evolutionary change.

Areas of Study

In general, the molecular study of evolution can be divided into three primary areas:

  • Determining the extent and causes of genetic variation in natural populations.
  • Researching molecular processes that influence evolutionary events.
  • Constructing phylogenies (or evolutionary trees) for various groups of organisms.


  • Nei, M., and S. Kumar. (2000). Molecular Evolution and Phylogenetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Pierce, B.A. (2007). Genetics: A Conceptual Appraoch. W.H.Freeman.

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Comments (1)

good article