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Gómez Robles Aida | Fellow Postdoctoral
2011-03-01 - 2012-02-28 | Research area: EvoDevo
In Silico Evolution of Hominin Dental Morphology
Evolution and development of serially homologous structures: analysis of the human dental system through geometric morphometric methods and computer simulations Geometric morphometric analyses of skeletal remains are becoming more and more common in paleanthropological research. These methods provide not only a complete description of morphological variation, but also new datasets that can be used to examine the dynamic processes underlying morphological variation. The evolution of teeth, from which many evolutionary inferences are drawn, is constrained by different factors, including phylogenetic, developmental, and functional ones. Quantifying and characterising these factors is fundamental to test the accuracy of evolutionary scenarios inferred from cranial and dental traits. The analysis of hominin dentition can also help to understand the evolution and development of serially homologous structures, which appear when a developmental program is multiplied and expressed in a new location. Morphological analyses of teeth can shed some light onto the developmental mechanisms constraining diversification and the functional pressures causing differentiation within homologous series. Previous research on human evolution has assumed a neutral mode of change for the dental system without testing this hypothesis, thus biasing many results derived from dental features. This assumption is based on an expected similarity between dental and cranial characters, which show a pattern of neutral evolution. However, these different features may be subject to different selective pressures, being effectively located in different evolutionary scenarios. In this light, in silico studies based on computer simulations provide an experimental framework to test hypotheses about evolution in a paleontological time scale and with an illustrative visual output. This approach is useful for delineating theoretical possibilities and for eliminating some specific simulated models, with all the parameters assumed by it, by comparing model results with actual paleontological data. Theoretical possibilities observed as a result of the simulations but not explored by evolution can clarify the mechanisms underlying biological variation.