How fossil records can unlock the secrets of animal evolution

2 Mar 2022

Image: Prof Maria McNamara

Prof Maria McNamara has won multiple research grants for her work investigating the evolution of feathers and melanin in fossil animals.

Palaeobiology professor Maria McNamara is no stranger to applying for research funding. Some of the grants she has received include the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Cofund grant, two multimillion-euro grants from the European Research Council (ERC) and a €300,000 Science Foundation Ireland grant.

Working at University College Cork, McNamara uses high-spec imaging and chemical analysis techniques to study biomolecules and tissue structures in fossil animals in an effort to understand the evolution of animal life.

Future Human

Interestingly, her research focus around palaeontology originally stemmed from her “inability to understand fossil preservation” when she was completing her undergraduate degree.

“[I] just couldn’t visualise how soft body parts could preserve,” she said. When an opportunity to do a PhD came up, McNamara decided she could either shy away from the topic forever or dedicate four years of her life to figuring it out.

She started working primarily on amphibians, but this expanded to birds and brought her to what she didn’t realise at the time were melanosomes – melanin-containing organelles that are responsible for the pigmentation of the hair and skin of mammals.

“When the first paper came out on interpreting these microstructures as melanosomes rather than fossil bacteria, which is what we had been interpreting as for donkey’s years before that, I started doing more work in that field, but I also got interested in other aspects of colouration,” she explained.

“My fossil research is increasingly focused on the evolution of melanin and of feathers, so those are two main research strands I have now.”

It is for this work that McNamara’s most recent ERC Consolidator grant of more than €2.4m was awarded.

The project will target chemical analysis of different fossils under a rigorous programme of fossilisation experiments simulating decay and burial. The aim is to generate the first comprehensive models for preservation of the biomolecules keratin, melanin and collagen in fossil soft tissues through deep time.

‘The biological history is affected by the whole fossilisation process’
– PROF MARIA MCNAMARA

Through this project, McNamara said she wants figure out how these three biomolecules can be identified, ensuring the evidence is reliable and working out how far back evidence of these molecules can be found.

“We’re trying to mainly assess whether the fossil records can help us understand how animals have constructed their bodies, when innovations have happened, when new types of molecules have evolved, or changes to these molecules, can we track that in the fossil record?”

One example McNamara gave is how the use of keratin changes between amphibians and reptiles. This shows the evolution of a very different skin structure and new forms of keratin in the skin.

“So, can we track that in the fossil record? Can we pin it down to certain environments or different ecological regimes to better understand the forces that drive molecular evolution, which is basically the forces that are pushing animal evolution?”

While the work is exciting, it can also be challenging due to the changes these biomolecules have gone through.

“We know that we can’t interpret the data directly. It’s like reading a history book, you know it’s kind of mostly right, but a lot of the details might have changed,” she said.

“The biological history is affected by the whole fossilisation process. So, to better understand that, especially when it comes to biomolecules, we do a lot of simulations in the lab.”

This involves setting up experimental environments in jars so that McNamara and her team can study the process of decay and maturation.

Why palaeontology is important

McNamara said the biggest misconception she faces about her field is people not knowing why taxpayers should be funding paleontological research.

“Palaeontology is important for two main reasons in today’s world. Number one, it stimulates curiosity, it triggers people’s imagination. In particular, it gets young people interested in science and, in general, it promotes positive attitudes towards science with kids,” she said.

Even though, like many areas of science, it can include maths and equations, there is a level of palaeontology that is very accessible, McNamara said, making it an important “gateway science”.

The second important reason for palaeontology is to help us understand how life on Earth is going to adapt to environmental challenges by looking to the past.

“We’ve got to understand the response of life, in the oceans and on land to changes in water chemistry, air temperature, all precipitation patterns, and the fossil record is only direct source of evidence on that.”

Applying for research funding

A research career can be a difficult route for some, because applying for funding plays such a major role and is not always guaranteed. The application process is something that ERC president Maria Leptin recently spoke to SiliconRepublic.com about.

McNamara has an excellent history with applying for grants. While she admitted it can be tough to get funding, she also thinks there’s “negative messaging” out there in terms of how hard it is to get grants.

“You just have to know what they need,” she said. “You’ve got to have a good idea for a research question, a problem that hasn’t been solved. You’ve also got to be aware of strategy. You can have a nice idea but if it’s only going to be interesting or relevant to five people, it’s never going to get you a big grant.”

‘I don’t know if people really put themselves in a reviewer’s shoes’
– PROF MARIA MCNAMARA

For those hoping to apply for research funding, McNamara said researchers have to be well up to speed on their field and know the types of questions that would be of interest.

“It’s the kind of thing you think about late at night or in the bath, you know: ‘God, wouldn’t it be amazing if we knew…’ And that’s the research grant,” she said. “You just need to think big without filters and without restraints.”

Beyond the initial idea, McNamara said researchers also need to “tick some things off the shopping list” to be successful in getting funding, including being able to write well, understanding what the funding body is looking for and making a proposal as clear as possible.

“I don’t know if people really put themselves in a reviewer’s shoes,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to use formatting. Don’t be afraid to use images, preliminary data are a must, highlight things.”

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Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com