Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Insects Evolved Flight When Plants First Grew Tall

A collaboration of more than 100 researchers from 10 countries have announced the results of an unprecedented scientific study that resolves the history of the evolution of insects.

The results, published in Science by scientists from the 1KITE project (1000 Insect Transcriptome Evolution) and based on an enormous molecular dataset, reveal that insects originated at the same time as the earliest terrestrial plants about 500 million years ago.

The analyses therefore suggest that insects and plants shaped the earliest terrestrial ecosystems together, with insects developing wings to fly 400 million years ago, long before any other animal could do so, and at nearly the same time that land plants first grew substantially upwards to form forests.

However, the goal to analyse more than 1000 insect transcriptomes, a set of all RNA molecules, posed a major challenge to the bioinformatics and scientific computing team within 1KITE. “This project produced huge datasets that really pushed, and often totally exceeded, the limits of the available software,” said Dr Robert Lanfear of Macquarie University. “As a result, many of us had to completely rewrite our software. This should have knock-on benefits for the field, as huge datasets are increasingly the norm rather than the exception.”

According to 1Kite leader Dr Karl Kjer of Rutgers University: “What we are finding, now that we have this huge dataset, is that many of the ‘revolutions’ brought about by analyses of molecular data over the past few decades have had errors that are now being resolved”.