A few months ago, the Canadian Museum of Nature’s DNA research lab was moved into a new and expanded space and renamed the Laboratory of Molecular Biodiversity.
What does molecular biodiversity mean? And why does a museum need a lab dedicated to studying DNA? To shed some light on these questions, we’ll start by considering your very own DNA molecules.
You can think of your DNA as an instruction book on how to make you, organ by organ, from head to toe: hair, eyeballs, nose, kidneys, knee joints, feet and all.
Instead of the instructions being spelled out with letters like in a normal book, DNA instructions are spelled out using four molecules: adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T).
And this applies not just to you but to all living things: from a microscopic single-celled alga to a tall pine tree, from a honey bee to a bowhead whale. The diversity of living things (or biodiversity) on planet Earth is spelled out in the four-molecule code of DNA.
The molecular biodiversity—simply the variety in the DNA codes in living organisms—that we see today is a result of a long history of change since the start of life on Earth about 3.5 billion years ago. DNA codes are passed from one generation to the next and through time they have changed due to several forces such as mutation and selection, the separation and extinction of populations, and a good dose of random chance. This has resulted in the species that are alive today and signals from this evolutionary journey remain in the DNA codes of today’s organisms.
Given what it can tell us about the diversity of life and the process of evolution, DNA is an important tool in understanding nature. Because of this, a laboratory dedicated to studying DNA fits right in at the Canadian Museum of Nature, a research institution with the goal of increasing knowledge of the natural world.
In our Laboratory of Molecular Biodiversity, staff, students and volunteers use the tools and techniques of molecular biology to reach into the cells of plants and animals and read the DNA codes within.
By determining the DNA codes for many different organisms and then comparing them through computer analyses, we can answer questions such as
- Which groups of organisms should be considered unique species?
- How are different species related to one another?
- Which populations are on a path towards evolving into new species?
- What evolutionary paths have led to Earth’s current species diversity?
With the expansion of our molecular biodiversity lab, we’ve increased our ability to answer questions such as these which are fundamental to understanding the patterns of life on Earth. And all of this simply by figuring out the order of As, Cs, Gs and Ts in the DNA molecules of living things.