Evolving fast and slow

Can mutations in one gene or many explain why some traits evolve faster than others?
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Microscopy image showing the development of the six external reproductive cells in the round worm C. elegans. The cell at the top evolves faster than the other cells. Image credit: Michalis Barkoulas (CC BY 4.0)

Heritable characteristics or traits of a group of organisms, for example the large brain size of primates or the hooves of a horse, are determined by genes, the environment, and by the interactions between them. Traits can change over time and generations when enough mutations in these genes have spread in a species to result in visible differences.

However, some traits, such as the large brain of primates, evolve faster than others, but why this is the case has been unclear. It could be that a few specific genes important for that trait in question mutate at a high rate, or, that many genes affect the trait, creating a lot of variation for natural selection to choose from.

Here, Besnard, Picao-Osorio et al. studied the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans to better understand the causes underlying the different rates of trait evolution. These worms have a short life cycle and evolve quickly over many generations, making them an ideal candidate for studying mutation rates in different traits.

Previous studies have shown that one of C. elegans’ six cells of the reproductive system evolves faster than the others. To investigate this further, Besnard, Picao-Osorio et al. analysed the genetic mutations driving change in this cell in 250 worm generations. The results showed that five mutations in five different genes – all responsible for different processes in the cells – were behind the supercharged evolution of this particular cell. This suggests that fast evolution results from natural selection acting upon a collection of genes, rather than one gene, and that many genes and pathways shape this trait.

In conclusion, these results demonstrate that how traits are coded at the molecular level, in one gene or many, can influence the rate at which they evolve.