Thursday, February 01, 2007

Does Evolution Select For Faster Evolvers?

It's a mystery why the speed and complexity of evolution appear to increase with time. For example, the fossil record indicates that single-celled life first appeared about 3.5 billion years ago, and it then took about 2.5 billion more years for multi-cellular life to evolve. That leaves just a billion years or so for the evolution of the diverse menagerie of plants, mammals, insects, birds and other species that populate the earth.

Adam Strange © DC Comics. Image from Dial B For Blog.
Scientists now suggest a possible answer; the speed of evolution has increased over time because bacteria and viruses constantly exchange transposable chunks of DNA between species, thus making it possible for life forms to evolve faster than they would if they relied only on sexual selection or random genetic mutations.

Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is a cross-species form of genetic transfer. It occurs when the DNA from one species is introduced into another. The idea was ridiculed when first proposed more than 50 years ago, but the advent of drug-resistant bacteria and subsequent discoveries, including the identification of a specialized protein that bacteria use to swap genes, has led to wide acceptance in recent years.

In comparison to existing models that account for only point mutations or sexual recombination, the new model shows how HGT increases the rate of evolution by propagating favorable mutations across populations.

Phase Diagrams of Quasispecies Theory with Recombination and Horizontal Gene Transfer. 2007. J.-M. Park and M. W. Deem. Phys. Rev. Lett.: 98