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Mol Biol Evol. 2002 May;19(5):748-61.

An insect molecular clock dates the origin of the insects and accords with palaeontological and biogeographic landmarks.

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Pathogen Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Unit, Department of Infectious and Tropical Diseases, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Keppel Street, London WC1E 7HT, UK.


A unified understanding of >390 Myr of insect evolution requires insight into their origin. Molecular clocks are widely applied for evolutionary dating, but clocks for the class Insecta have remained elusive. We now define a robust nucleotide and amino acid mitochondrial molecular clock encompassing five insect orders, including the Blattaria (cockroaches), Orthoptera (crickets and locusts), Hemiptera (true bugs), Diptera, and Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). Calibration of the clock using one of the earliest, most extensive fossil records for insects (the early ancestors of extant Blattaria) was congruent with all available insect fossils, with biogeographic history, with the Cambrian explosion, and with independent dating estimates from Lepidopteran families. In addition, dates obtained from both nucleotide and amino acid clocks were congruent with each other. Of particular interest to vector biology is the early date of the emergence of triatomine bugs (99.8-93.5 MYA), coincident with the formation of the South American continent during the breakup of Gondwanaland. More generally, we reveal the insects arising from a common ancestor with the Anostraca (fairy shrimps) at around the Silurian-Ordovician boundary (434.2-421.1 MYA) coinciding with the earliest plant megafossil. We explore Tilyard's theory proposing that the terrestrial transition of the aquatic arthropod ancestor to the insects is associated with a particular plant group (early vascular plants). The major output of the study is a comprehensive series of dates for deep-branching points within insect evolution that can act as calibration points for further dating studies within insect families and genera.

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