Why did DNA technology lead to more use of cladistics?

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Cladistics is a field of biology that uses genetic data to classify organisms. DNA technology has revolutionized cladistics by making it possible to study large numbers of specimens rapidly and cheaply. This has allowed cladists to develop more accurate and efficient methods for classification and has led to greater use of cladistics in biological research.

A short history of cladistics

The first time a biologist used DNA sequencing to identify plant species was in 1987, and today, scientists routinely use DNA technology to classify everything from birds and fish to mice and monkeys. Cladistics didn’t exist when early taxonomists classified organisms based on shared characteristics like color, number of legs, or length of the muzzle; it only makes sense that advances in science would help biologists fine-tune their classifications well. If you look at a modern tree diagram representing evolutionary history, you can see how our current understanding supports—and often clarifies—classification systems established long ago.

What is cladistics?

Cladistics is a field of taxonomy that uses mathematical algorithms to determine relationships among organisms. Cladistic analysis has become increasingly popular, partially because it has led to important discoveries in other fields and partially because it can be implemented via computer. DNA technology is widely available, which means scientists can sequence DNA from fossils. By comparing extant and fossilized DNA, researchers can also establish how quickly species have changed over time. This is important for some reasons, including data mining applications and estimating when different groups diverged from one another. In some cases, DNA technology has even allowed scientists to identify new species or resolve long-standing debates about whether certain groups belong together. 

For example, some paleontologists believed dinosaurs were closely related to birds. But by comparing dinosaur and bird DNA sequences, they discovered dinosaurs were more closely related to crocodiles—and not birds! So while cladistics isn’t entirely reliant on DNA technology, there’s no doubt that advances in genetic sequencing will make it even easier for scientists to study evolution in both living and extinct animals.

What does DNA technology enable?

Before we begin talking about why DNA technology has led to greater use of cladistics, we must understand what DNA technology is. For this reason, let’s take a look at genetics as a whole.  Genetics is a study that involves applying techniques from chemistry and physics to organisms, especially those related by blood (genetics), or under normal conditions, produce offspring with specific traits. It also involves DNA technology in that every living organism contains genetic material known as deoxyribonucleic acid or, put – DNA.

Why did this result in an increased usage of cladistics?

As technology advances, it is easier and cheaper for people to make comparisons between DNA. Cladistics helps researchers identify similarities and differences within a population. It is helpful in identifying species. Evolutionary biology uses both phylogenetics and cladistics. The study of evolutionary biology makes it possible for researchers to trace how species evolve and determine if two populations are related or not. These methods have led scientists to understand biodiversity better. Since technology made it cheaper and more accessible for researchers to do their jobs, they could come up with new ways to study organisms that previously weren’t available due to a lack of resources or knowledge.

What are some examples of how it has been used?

Cladistics is most commonly used in determining evolutionary relationships and constructing family trees. This has led to breakthroughs in many fields, especially anthropology and botany. Two examples include: (1) The ability to determine that a tiny fossil, known as Ida, belonged on a branch of our evolutionary tree even though it was only about 1 inch long. (2) The ability to compare DNA from living species with DNA from fossils and reconstruct their evolutionary relationships. This is important for understanding why certain plants and animals have gone extinct, where they originated, and how they changed over time.

What is some potential future uses for cladistics?

In addition to helping scientists organize and classify species, DNA technology could be helpful to in fields such as medicine and agriculture. Some scientists are working on ways to genetically modify disease-resistant plants, a process known as genetic engineering, by splicing desirable DNA into their genome. Cladistics could help speed up that process by identifying which plant has the most similar genes. Cladistics could also help predict the effects of new medical treatments on human cells.


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