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Using Genetic Networks and Homology to Understand the Evolution of Phenotypic Traits

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Homology can have different meanings for different kinds of biologists. A phylogenetic view holds that homology, defined by common ancestry, is rigorously identified through phylogenetic analysis. Such homologies are taxic homologies (=synapomorphies). A second interpretation, “biological homology” emphasizes common ancestry through the continuity of genetic information underlying phenotypic traits, and is favored by some developmental geneticists. A third kind of homology, deep homology, was recently defined as “the sharing of the genetic regulatory apparatus used to build morphologically and phylogenetically disparate features.” Here we explain the commonality among these three versions of homology. We argue that biological homology, as evidenced by a conserved gene regulatory network giving a trait its “essential identity” (a Character Identity Network or “ChIN”) must also be a taxic homology. In cases where a phenotypic trait has been modified over the course of evolution such that homology (taxic) is obscured (e.g. jaws are modified gill arches), a shared underlying ChIN provides evidence of this transformation. Deep homologies, where molecular and cellular components of a phenotypic trait precede the trait itself (are phylogenetically deep relative to the trait), are also taxic homologies, undisguised. Deep homologies inspire particular interest for understanding the evolutionary assembly of phenotypic traits. Mapping these deeply homologous building blocks on a phylogeny reveals the sequential steps leading to the origin of phenotypic novelties. Finally, we discuss how new genomic technologies will revolutionize the comparative genomic study of non-model organisms in a phylogenetic context, necessary to understand the evolution of phenotypic traits.

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Keywords: Character Identity Networks; Evolution; Gene regulatory networks; Next Gen Sequencing; Phenotypic Traits; Transformation; deep homology; genomics; taxic homology; transformational homology

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: March 1, 2012

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