Monday, 7 February 2011

Evolution at Two Levels: On Genes and Form

In their classic paper “Evolution at Two Levels in Humans and Chimpanzees", published exactly 30 years ago, Mary-Claire King and Allan Wilson described the great similarity between many proteins of chimpanzees and humans. They concluded that the small degree of molecular divergence observed could not account for the anatomical or behavioral differences between chimps and humans. Rather, they proposed that evolutionary changes in anatomy and way of life are more often based on changes in the mechanisms controlling the expression of genes than on sequence changes in proteins.

This article was a milestone in three respects. First, because it was the first comparison of a large set of proteins between closely related species, it may be considered one of the first contributions to “comparative genomics” (although no such discipline existed for another two decades). Second, because it extrapolated from molecular data to make inferences about the evolution of form, it may also be considered a pioneering study in evolutionary developmental biology. And third, its focus on the question of human evolution and human capabilities, relative to our losest living relative, marked the beginning of the quest to understand the genetic basis of the origins of human traits.


From the outset of this review, I make the sharp distinction between the evolution of anatomy and the evolution of physiology. Changing the size, shape, number, or color patterns of physical traits is fundamentally different from changing the chemistry of physiological processes. There is ample evidence from studies of the evolution of proteins directly involved in animal vision, respiration, digestive metabolism, and host defense that the evolution of coding sequences plays a key role in some (but not all) important physiological differences between species. In contrast, the relative contribution of coding or regulatory sequence evolution to the evolution of anatomy stands as the more open question.

Sean B. Carroll - Evolution at Two Levels: On Genes and Form

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