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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2005 May 3;102 Suppl 1:6543-9. Epub 2005 Apr 25.

Developmental plasticity and the origin of species differences.

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  • 1Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, APO AA 34020-9511, USA.


Speciation is the origin of reproductive isolation and divergence between populations, according to the "biological species concept" of Mayr. Studies of reproductive isolation have dominated research on speciation, leaving the origin of species differences relatively poorly understood. Here, I argue that the origin of species differences, and of novel phenotypes in general, involves the reorganization of ancestral phenotypes (developmental recombination) followed by the genetic accommodation of change. Because selection acts on phenotypes, not directly on genotypes or genes, novel traits can originate by environmental induction as well as mutation, then undergo selection and genetic accommodation fueled by standing genetic variation or by subsequent mutation and genetic recombination. Insofar as phenotypic novelties arise from adaptive developmental plasticity, they are not "random" variants, because their initial form reflects adaptive responses with an evolutionary history, even though they are initiated by mutations or novel environmental factors that are random with respect to (future) adaptation. Change in trait frequency involves genetic accommodation of the threshold or liability for expression of a novel trait, a process that follows rather than directs phenotypic change. Contrary to common belief, environmentally initiated novelties may have greater evolutionary potential than mutationally induced ones. Thus, genes are probably more often followers than leaders in evolutionary change. Species differences can originate before reproductive isolation and contribute to the process of speciation itself. Therefore, the genetics of speciation can profit from studies of changes in gene expression as well as changes in gene frequency and genetic isolation.

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