At first glance, the list of animals could suggest any zoo. There’s an elephant, an armadillo, an opossum, a dolphin, a sloth, a hedgehog, big and small bats, a couple of shrews, some fish, a macaque, an orangutan, a chimpanzee and a gorilla—to name a few of the more familiar creatures. But this menagerie is not at all like any zoo that has been constructed before. There are no cages, no concession stands and, in fact, no animals. It is a “virtual” zoo that contains only the DNA sequences of those animals—the hundreds of millions to billions of letters of DNA code that make up the genetic recipe for each species.
The most excited visitors to this new molecular zoo are evolutionary biologists, because within it lies a massive and detailed record of evolution. For many decades, scientists have longed to understand how the great diversity of species has arisen. We have known for half a century that changes in physical traits, from body color to brain size, stem from changes in DNA. Determining precisely what changes to the vast expanse of DNA sequences are responsible for giving animals their unique appearance was out of reach until recently, however.