Genes essential to producing the developmental differences displayed by social insects evolve more rapidly than genes governing other aspects of organismal function, a new study has found.
All species of life are able to develop in different ways by varying the genes they express, ultimately becoming different shapes, sizes, colors and sexes. This plasticity permits organisms to operate successfully in their environments. A new study of the genomes of social insects provides insight into the evolution of the genes involved in this developmental plasticity.
The study, which was conducted by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, showed that genes involved in creating different sexes, life stages and castes of fire ants and honeybees evolved more rapidly than genes not involved in these developmental processes. The researchers also found that these fast-evolving genes exhibited elevated rates of evolution even before they were recruited to produce diverse forms of an organism.
"This was a totally unexpected finding because most theory suggested that genes involved in producing diverse forms of an organism would evolve rapidly specifically because they generated developmental differences," said Michael Goodisman, an associate professor in the School of Biology at Georgia Tech. "Instead, this study suggests that fast-evolving genes are actually predisposed to generating new developmental forms."
The results of the study will be published in the Sept. 20, 2011 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This research was supported by the National Science Foundation.
The project was an international collaboration between Goodisman, associate professor Soojin Yi and postdoctoral fellow Brendan Hunt from the Georgia Tech School of Biology, and professor Laurent Keller, research scientist DeWayne Shoemaker, and postdoctoral fellow
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Georgia Institute of Technology Research News