Evolutionary theory assumes that genetic variation is uniform and gradual in nature, yet morphological and gene expression studies have revealed that different life-stages exhibit distinct levels of cross-species conservation. In particular, a stage in mid-embryogenesis is highly conserved across species of the same phylum, suggesting that this stage is subject to developmental constraints, either by increased purifying selection or by a strong mutational bias. An alternative explanation, however, holds that the same ‘hourglass’ pattern of variation may result from increased positive selection at the earlier and later stages of development. To distinguish between these scenarios, we examined gene expression variation in a population of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans using an experimental design that eliminated the influence of positive selection. By measuring gene expression for all genes throughout development in 20 strains, we found that variations were highly uneven throughout development, with a significant depletion during mid-embryogenesis. In particular, the family of homeodomain transcription factors, whose expression generally coincides with mid-embryogenesis, evolved under high constraint. Our data further show that genes responsible for the integration of germ layers during morphogenesis are the most constrained class of genes. Together, these results provide strong evidence for developmental constraints as the mechanism underlying the hourglass model of animal evolution. Understanding the pattern and mechanism of developmental constraints provides a framework to understand how evolutionary processes have interacted with embryogenesis and led to the diversity of animal life on Earth.
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We thank C. F. Baer of the University of Florida at Gainesville for providing the mutation accumulation strains and for his comments. We thank J. F. Ryan from the Whitney Institute for Marine Bioscience for comments. We also thank members of our laboratory for constructive comments. We thank the Technion Genome Center for technical assistance.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
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Zalts, H., Yanai, I. Developmental constraints shape the evolution of the nematode mid-developmental transition. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 0113 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-017-0113
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