In the hope of reconstructing a pivotal step in evolution — the colonization of land by fish that learned to walk and breathe air — researchers have decoded the genome of the coelacanth, a prehistoric-looking fish whose form closely resembles those seen in the fossils of 400 million years ago.

Often called a living fossil, the coelacanth was long believed to have fallen extinct 70 ­million years ago, until a specimen was recognized in a fish market in South Africa in 1908. The coelacanth has fleshy lobed fins that look somewhat like limbs, as does the lungfish, an air-breathing freshwater fish. The idea of decoding the coelacanth genome began six years ago when Chris Amemiya, a biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, acquired some samples of its tissue. He asked the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT to decode the DNA and invited experts in evolutionary and developmental biology to help interpret the results.

The coelacanth and the lungfish have long been battling for the honor of which is closer to the ancestral fish that first used its fins to walk on land and give rise to the ­tetrapods, meaning all vertebrate animals, from reptiles and birds to mammals. The decoding of the coelacanth genome, reported online in the journal Nature, is a victory for the lungfish as the closer relative to the first tetrapod. But the coelacanth may have the last laugh because its genome — which, at 2.8 billion units of DNA, is about the same size as a human genome — is decodable, whereas the lungfish genome, 100 billion DNA units in length, cannot be cracked with current methods. The coelacanth genome is therefore more likely to shed light on the central evolutionary question of what genetic alterations were needed to change a lobe-finned fish into the first land-dwelling tetrapod.

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