Reverse evolution in real-time

January 11, 2009

Evolutionary biology tells us that replaying life's tape will not not look at all like the original. The outcome of evolution is contingent on everything that came before. Now, scientists at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciencia in Portugal, New York University and the University of California, Irvine, provide the first quantitative genetic evidence of why this is so.

In his book, Wonderful World, Stephen Jay Gould writes about an experiment of 'replaying life's tape', wherein one could go back in time, let the tape of life play again and see if 'the repetition looks at all like the original'. Evolutionary biology tells us that it wouldn't look the same - the outcome of evolution is contingent on everything that came before. Now, scientists at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência (IGC) in Portugal, New York University and the University of California Irvine, provide the first quantitative genetic evidence of why this is so.

In this study, to be published online this week in the journal Nature Genetics, Henrique Teotónio and his colleagues recreated natural selection in real-time, in the laboratory (rather than based on inferences from fossil records or from comparing existing natural populations) and provide the first quantitative evidence for natural selection on so-called standing genetic variation - a process long thought to be operating in natural populations that reproduce sexually but which, until now, had never been demonstrated.

The researchers used laboratory-grown populations of fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster), derived from an original group of flies, harvested from the wild back in 1975. These ancestral flies were grown in the laboratory, for two decades, under different environmental conditions, (such as starvation and longer life-cycles) so that each population was selected for specific characteristics. Henrique Teotónio and his colleagues placed these populations back in the ancestral environment, for 50 generations, to impose reverse evolution on the flies, and then looked at the genetic changes in certain areas of chromosome 3 of these flies.

Says Henrique, 'In 2001 we showed that evolution is reversible in as far as phenotypes are concerned, but even then, only to a point. Indeed, not all the characteristics evolved back to the ancestral state. Furthermore, some characteristics reverse-evolved rapidly, while others took longer. Reverse evolution seems to stop when the populations of flies achieve adaptation to the ancestral environment, which may not coincide with the ancestral state. In this study, we have shown that underlying these phenomena is the fact that, at the genetic level, convergence to the ancestral state is on the order of 50%, that is, on average, only half of the gene frequencies revert to the ancestral gene frequencies - evolution is contingent upon history at the genetic level too'.

These findings provide further insights into the basic understanding of how evolution and diversity are generated and maintained. On the one hand, it provides evidence for evolution happening through changes in the distribution of alleles in a population (so-called standing genetic variation), from generation to generation, rather than the appearance of mutations, from one generation to the next. On the other hand, as Henrique notes, 'It has implications for the definition of biodiversity: some of the 'reversed' flies may be phenotypically identical to the ancestral flies, but they are genetically different. How then do we define biodiversity?'

Source: Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciencia, Portugal

Explore further: Tweaking the beak: Retracing the bird's beak to its dinosaur origins, in the laboratory

Related Stories

New method solves centuries-old animal mystery

December 10, 2014

Most animal embryos contain three layers of cells that transform into every part of the body—from brains to bones to guts. Since the 19th century, biologists have been puzzling over which of these layers came first in animal ...

Recommended for you

A cataclysmic event of a certain age

July 27, 2015

At the end of the Pleistocene period, approximately 12,800 years ago—give or take a few centuries—a cosmic impact triggered an abrupt cooling episode that earth scientists refer to as the Younger Dryas.

New blow for 'supersymmetry' physics theory

July 27, 2015

In a new blow for the futuristic "supersymmetry" theory of the universe's basic anatomy, experts reported fresh evidence Monday of subatomic activity consistent with the mainstream Standard Model of particle physics.

Dense star clusters shown to be binary black hole factories

July 29, 2015

The coalescence of two black holes—a very violent and exotic event—is one of the most sought-after observations of modern astronomy. But, as these mergers emit no light of any kind, finding such elusive events has been ...

Image: Hubble sees a dying star's final moments

July 31, 2015

A dying star's final moments are captured in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The death throes of this star may only last mere moments on a cosmological timescale, but this star's demise is still quite ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jan 12, 2009
this study only looks at the pressure put on the genotype and phenotype by "natural selection" (NS).

NS can only apply pressure on the organism to bring about favorable characteristics, within the scope and ability already contained in the genotype.

over time new genes are imported through horizontal routes, by gene duplication or by deletion, mutation.

the import thing here is that, of those 4 methods, only mutation, deletion and duplication are impacted by NS. the BIG factor, HGT, cannot be easily reversed. So putting an organism back into a previous environment means putting a different organism there, and evolution isn't reversible because of HGT.

This is a good study in observing the abilities of NG over time, but it cannot be called Evolution in Reverse, as NG only explores the capabilities latent within the genome. if genes have been deleted or new ones acquired since the "original environment" then we can never have the same organism.

not rated yet Jan 12, 2009
It has implications for the definition of biodiversity: some of the 'reversed' flies may be phenotypically identical to the ancestral flies, but they are genetically different. How then do we define biodiversity?
Am I missing something here?
If the re-introduced flies can still mate with the originals then any genetic differences acquired by the 'new' flies will be shared amongst the rest of the population according Natural Selection as if they were a mutant strain that had evolved naturally.
Biodiversity is based on number of species, and species is based on mating compatibility. What's new?

Any genetic differences will get eventually absorbed into the entire population, and the two strains will become impossible to tell apart.
not rated yet Jan 13, 2009
biodiversity is an old word for an old paradigm. it doesn't take genetics into accord particularly well.

biodiversity has two levels. firstly, the diversity of the overall ecosystem (number of different species), secondly the diversity within a population (latent ability within a species to exploit/cope with changing environmental conditions).

the point the article makes is that there is a limit to biodiversity in a species. changing the genetic makeup can create a new species, in that they can no longer mate with their ancestors (humans and apes for example). so biodiversity at the special level has limits imposed.

one species can only be as diverse as is possible for two genotypes are compatible. So, one could say that the nematode worm has a much greater biodiversity potential than human due to its huge pool of genes.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.