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J Exp Zool B Mol Dev Evol. 2005 Nov 15;304(6):580-92.

Molecular evolution of evolutionary novelties: the vagina and uterus of therian mammals.

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Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut 06520-8106, USA.


Innovations are an integral part of the evolutionary process if we accept the fact that more complex organisms derived from anatomically simple ones. All major taxa are distinguished not only by their closer genealogical relatedness relative to other species but also by the possession of novel anatomical and physiological features. The question is whether the origin of these novel characters can be simply understood as adaptations, like all other phenotypic differences that arise by natural selection, or whether the origin of these characters requires more profound genetic changes. In this paper, we argue that innovations constitute a distinct class of evolutionary processes that require a research program complementary to the study of adaptation. The distinguishing feature of innovations is the origin of novel organ identity gene functions specific to the novel character. By implication, research into the origin of novel characters has to identify the developmental regulatory links that were involved in the evolution of these characters. We suggest that novel regulatory links will include the evolution of cis-regulatory elements as well as novel protein-protein interactions among transcription factor proteins. The latter hypothesis suggests that innovations should leave a trace in the evolution of the protein coding regions of transcription factor genes. We illustrate this idea with results on the evolution of HoxA-11 and HoxA-13 in the stem lineage of placental mammals. These genes are essential for female reproductive tract development and function. We show that, as predicted, these genes experience strong directional selection in the stem lineage of placental mammals and that these amino acid substitutions affect residues at the surface of the protein, consistent with their expected role in protein-protein interactions. We conclude that a careful analysis of sequence variation in developmental genes can aid in testing which developmental changes were instrumental in the origin of novel morphological characters.

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