Comparative developmental evidence indicates that reorganizations in developmental gene regulatory networks (GRNs) underlie evolutionary changes in animal morphology, including body plans. We argue here that the nature of the evolutionary alterations that arise from regulatory changes depends on the hierarchical position of the change within a GRN. This concept cannot be accomodated by microevolutionary nor macroevolutionary theory. It will soon be possible to investigate these ideas experimentally, by assessing the effects of GRN changes on morphological evolution.
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We appreciate the helpful comments from several reviewers. D.H.E. acknowledges support from the NASA Astrobiology Program, and E.H.D. from the National Science Foundation (IOS 0641398).
- Additive genetic variation
The portion of genetic variance that is attributable to the average effect of substitution of one allele for another at a locus; it is used to predict the rate of response to selection for quantitative traits.
- Body plan
The conserved aspects of morphology that define major clades, recognized in a Linnean hierarchy as phyla, classes and perhaps orders.
Describes the situation in which a mutation has achieved a frequency of 100% in a natural population.
Club-shaped modified hind wings on Drosophila species that serve as gyroscopic sense organs.
An evolutionary change in the timing of a developmental process, so that a character or process occurs earlier or later in ontogeny, or grows at a different rate.
- Imaginal disc
Epidermal thickenings in the larvae of holometabolous insects. The discs contain mesodermal cells that give rise to adult organs.
Relating to the skin; appendages that grow out of the skin.
Establishment of a stable regulatory state by instituting positive feedback between regulatory genes that ensures continued transcription of the participating genes and those operating downstream of them in the GRN.
Evolution above the species level, including species-level trends, and putatively encompassing selection at the level of species and clades.
Evolution within species and often the formation of new species; this is experimentally accessible through studies of shifting gene frequencies in populations.
Acquisition by a duplicated gene of a new function compared with the original common ancestral function.
The dorsal portion of an insects thoracic segment.
The most distantly related group in a phylogenetic analysis; it is used to establish the sequence and polarity of evolutionary changes.
Character states of an organism that were present before the last common ancestor of a clade.
- Purifying internal selection
The elimination of genetic variation except around a single mode, by selection against non-viable developmental mutants.
- Regulatory state
The set of active transcription factors in every cell at any time point.
Retention by duplicated genes of different components of the original common ancestral function, which allows both gene copies to be preserved.
Small hairs, specifically on the epidermis of Drosophila species.
The assumption that studies of present processes are sufficient to understand past events, because there is a single common underlying evolutionary process that accounts for changes at every level.
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Erwin, D., Davidson, E. The evolution of hierarchical gene regulatory networks. Nat Rev Genet 10, 141–148 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrg2499
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