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Anat Rec. 1999 Feb 15;257(1):15-31.

Homeobox genes, fossils, and the origin of species.

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Department of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh, PA 15260, USA.


Ever since Darwin there has been a history of debate on the tempo and mode of evolution. Is speciation a gradual process involving the accumulation of minute variations extant within a species, or is it rapid, the result of major organismal reorganization? Does one define a species on the basis of genes, morphology, or geographic or reproductive isolation? In this communication I present a model of evolutionary change that is based on the Mendelian inheritance of mutations in regulatory genes and the fact that most nonlethal mutations arise in the recessive state. Since the new recessive allele will spread through many generations without expression until there is a critical mass of heterozygotes capable of producing homozygotes for the mutation, the novel feature thus produced will appear abruptly in the population and in more than one individual. This picture of punctuation is consistent with the fossil record, which typically fails to provide evidence of smoothly transitional states of morphological change. Given that the first of their kind in the fossil record are organisms in which their novel characteristics are often more fully expressed or complex than in their descendants, it would seem that, after the mutation involving a regulatory gene is introduced, the general tendency is for its effects to become diminished. Among the implications for speciation is that this process does not depend on either reproductive isolation or genetic incompatibility. Rather, barring effects on reproductive organs or behavior, homozygotes for a novelty should be able to breed with heterozygotes and homozygotes for the wild state of the original population. This, in turn, suggests that the species barrier between individuals is probably a matter of mate recognition.

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