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Conservation and co-option in developmental programmes: the importance of homology relationships

Matthias Sanetra, Gerrit Begemann, May-Britt Becker and Axel Meyer*

Author Affiliations

Lehrstuhl für Zoologie und Evolutionsbiologie, Fachbereich Biologie, Universität Konstanz, 78457 Konstanz, Germany

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Frontiers in Zoology 2005, 2:15  doi:10.1186/1742-9994-2-15

Published: 10 October 2005

Abstract

One of the surprising insights gained from research in evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) is that increasing diversity in body plans and morphology in organisms across animal phyla are not reflected in similarly dramatic changes at the level of gene composition of their genomes. For instance, simplicity at the tissue level of organization often contrasts with a high degree of genetic complexity. Also intriguing is the observation that the coding regions of several genes of invertebrates show high sequence similarity to those in humans. This lack of change (conservation) indicates that evolutionary novelties may arise more frequently through combinatorial processes, such as changes in gene regulation and the recruitment of novel genes into existing regulatory gene networks (co-option), and less often through adaptive evolutionary processes in the coding portions of a gene. As a consequence, it is of great interest to examine whether the widespread conservation of the genetic machinery implies the same developmental function in a last common ancestor, or whether homologous genes acquired new developmental roles in structures of independent phylogenetic origin. To distinguish between these two possibilities one must refer to current concepts of phylogeny reconstruction and carefully investigate homology relationships. Particularly problematic in terms of homology decisions is the use of gene expression patterns of a given structure. In the future, research on more organisms other than the typical model systems will be required since these can provide insights that are not easily obtained from comparisons among only a few distantly related model species.