Before nature selects, gene networks steer a course for evolution

Sep 8, 2015

Karen Sears

By Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Natural selection is a race to reproduce, a competition between individuals with varying traits that helps direct the evolution of a species. As scientists begin to explore the complex networks of genes that shape the form and function of each individual, they can ask a new question about evolution: How do the structures of these gene networks determine which individuals appear on the starting line, silently influencing evolution before competition has even begun?

University of Illinois researchers Karen Sears and Zoi Rapti, along with collaborators at Illinois and four other institutions, have addressed this question by exploring the gene network that guides limb development in mammals.

They found that during early development, when limbs are first forming, gene activity in this network varies little; later, when detailed limb structure is beginning to emerge, the network changes in structure, and gene activity varies more widely. This pattern may make it easier for evolution to tweak, rather than remodel, limb structure.

“When we look at the evolutionary record of animals, we find that there are some forms that have evolved repeatedly, and some that have never evolved,” Sears said. “I want to know the role that development has in generating these patterns.”

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