Yale Study Suggests That Evolution Can Be Predicted

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Evolution was long thought to be random, but a recent study suggests otherwise.

Evolution may be less random than we thought.

Evolution has long been considered a relatively random process, with species characteristics being shaped by random mutations and environmental factors and thus largely unpredictable.

But an international team of scientists led by researchers from Yale University and Columbia University found that a specific plant lineage independently developed three similar leaf types repeatedly in mountainous places scattered throughout the Neotropics.

The research revealed the first examples in plants of “replicated radiation”, which is the repeated development of similar forms in different regions. This discovery raises the possibility that evolution is not necessarily such a random process and can be anticipated.

The study was recently published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Parallel evolution leaves

Similar leaf types evolved independently in three species of plants found in cloud forests of Oaxaca, Mexico, and three species of plants in a similar environment in Chiapas, Mexico. This example of parallel evolution is one of many found by Yale-led scientists and suggests that evolution may be predictable. Credit: Yale University

“The findings show just how predictable evolution can actually be, combining organisms development and natural selection to produce the same shapes over and over under certain conditions,” said Yale’s Michael Donoghue, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and co- corresponding author. “Perhaps evolutionary biology can become much more of a predictive science than we ever imagined in the past.”

The research team examined the genetics and morphology of the Viburnum plant lineage, a genus of flowering plants that began spreading from Mexico to Central and South America about 10 million years ago. Donoghue was researching this group of plants for his Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard 40 years ago. At the time, he argued for an alternative theory according to which large, hair-covered leaves and small, smooth leaves both evolved early in the group’s history and later migrated separately, dispersed by birds, through the various mountain ranges.

However, the new genetic analyzes presented in the study show that the 2 different leaf types evolved separately and simultaneously in each of the many mountain regions.

“I came to the wrong conclusion because in the 1970s I didn’t have the relevant genomic data,” Donoghue said.

The team found that a very similar set of leaf types developed in nine of the 11 regions studied. However, the full range of leaf types may have yet to evolve in places where Viburnum has only recently migrated. For example, the mountains of Bolivia lack the large hairy leaf types found in other wetter, low-sunshine regions of the cloud forests of Mexico, Central America, and northern South America.

“These plants arrived in Bolivia less than a million years ago, so we predict that the large, hairy leaf shape will eventually evolve in Bolivia as well,” Donoghue said.

Several examples of repeated radiation have been found in animals, such as Anolis lizards in the Caribbean. In that case, the same set of body shapes, or “ectomorphs,” evolved independently on different islands. With a plant example now in hand, evolutionary biologists will try to discover the general conditions under which solid predictions can be made about evolutionary trajectories.

“This collaboration, spanning decades, has revealed a wonderful new system for studying evolutionary adaptation,” said Ericka Edwards, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale and co-corresponding author of the paper. “Now that we have established the pattern, our next challenges are to better understand the functional significance of these leaf species and the underlying genetic architecture that allows for their repeated emergence.”

Reference: “Replicated radiation from a plant clade along a cloud forest archipelago” by Michael J. Donoghue, Deren AR Eaton, Carlos A. Maya-Lastra, Michael J. Landis, Patrick W. Sweeney, Mark E. Olson, N. Ivalú Cacho, Morgan K. Moeglein, Jordan R. Gardner, Nora M. Heaphy, Matiss Castorena, Alí ​​Segovia Rivas, Wendy L. Clement and Erika J. Edwards, July 18, 2022, Nature Ecology & Evolution.
DOI: 10.1038/s41559-022-01823-x


The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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