The theoretical frameworks for molecular systematics were laid in the 1960s in the works of Emile Zuckerkandl, Emanuel Margoliash, Linus Pauling, and Walter M. Fitch. Applications of molecular systematics were pioneered by Charles G. Sibley (birds), Herbert C. Dessauer (herpetology), and Morris Goodman (primates), followed by Allan C. Wilson, Robert K. Selander, and John C. Avise (who studied various groups). Work with protein electrophoresis began around 1956. Although the results were not quantitative and did not initially improve on morphological classification, they provided tantalizing hints that long-held notions of the classifications of birds, for example, needed substantial revision. In the period of 1974–1986, DNA-DNA hybridization was the dominant technique.
Every living organism contains deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), ribonucleic acid (RNA), and proteins. In general, closely related organisms have a high degree of similarity in the molecular structure of these substances, while the molecules of organisms distantly related often show a pattern of dissimilarity. Conserved sequences, such as mitochondrial DNA, are expected to accumulate mutations over time, and assuming a constant rate of mutation, provide a molecular clock for dating divergence. Molecular phylogeny uses such data to build a "relationship tree" that shows the probable evolution of various organisms. With the invention of Sanger sequencing in 1977, it became possible to isolate and identify these molecular structures. High-throughput sequencing may also be used to obtain the transcriptome of an organism, allowing inference of phylogenetic relationships using transcriptomic data.
The most common approach is the comparison of homologous sequences for genes using sequence alignment techniques to identify similarity. Another application of molecular phylogeny is in DNA barcoding, wherein the species of an individual organism is identified using small sections of mitochondrial DNA or chloroplast DNA. Another application of the techniques that make this possible can be seen in the very limited field of human genetics, such as the ever-more-popular use of genetic testing to determine a child's paternity, as well as the emergence of a new branch of criminal forensics focused on evidence known as genetic fingerprinting.
A comprehensive step-by-step protocol on constructing a phylogenetic tree, including DNA/Amino Acid contiguous sequence assembly, multiple sequence alignment, model-test (testing best-fitting substitution models), and phylogeny reconstruction using Maximum Likelihood and Bayesian Inference, is available at Nature Protocol
Early attempts at molecular systematics were also termed as chemotaxonomy and made use of proteins, enzymes, carbohydrates, and other molecules that were separated and characterized using techniques such as chromatography. These have been replaced in recent times largely by DNA sequencing, which produces the exact sequences of nucleotides or bases in either DNA or RNA segments extracted using different techniques. In general, these are considered superior for evolutionary studies, since the actions of evolution are ultimately reflected in the genetic sequences. At present, it is still a long and expensive process to sequence the entire DNA of an organism (its genome). However, it is quite feasible to determine the sequence of a defined area of a particular chromosome. Typical molecular systematic analyses require the sequencing of around 1000 base pairs. At any location within such a sequence, the bases found in a given position may vary between organisms. The particular sequence found in a given organism is referred to as its haplotype. In principle, since there are four base types, with 1000 base pairs, we could have 41000 distinct haplotypes. However, for organisms within a particular species or in a group of related species, it has been found empirically that only a minority of sites show any variation at all, and most of the variations that are found are correlated, so that the number of distinct haplotypes that are found is relatively small.