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Dev Biol. 2010 Jan 1;337(1):157-61. doi: 10.1016/j.ydbio.2009.09.038. Epub 2009 Sep 30.

Hierarchical evolution of animal body plans.

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  • 1Department of Physics & Astronomy, Rice University, Houston, TX 77005, USA.


An open question in animal evolution is why the phylum- and superphylum-level body plans have changed so little, while the class- and family-level body plans have changed so greatly since the early Cambrian. Davidson and Erwin (Davidson and Erwin, 2006; Erwin and Davidson, 2009) proposed that the hierarchical structure of gene regulatory networks leads to different observed evolutionary rates for terminal properties of the body plan versus major aspects of body plan morphology. Here, we calculated the speed of evolution of genes in these gene regulatory networks. We found that the genes which determine the phylum and superphylum characters evolve slowly, while those genes which determine the classes, families, and speciation evolve more rapidly. This result furnishes genetic support to the hypothesis that the hierarchical structure of developmental regulatory networks provides an organizing structure which guides the evolution of aspects of the body plan.

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