Top Story: September 12, 2013

Convergent Evolution in the Genes

dolphins, toothed whales, bats, echolocation, genes, genetics, genomics, hearing, convergent, evolution, adaptation

By Molly Michelson

Here’s a great idea for a super-power: what if by merely emitting a sound, you could detect nearby friends and enemies in the way the sound echoes? Echoes. Echoes.

For many species of bats and dolphins, echolocation isn’t a super-power but a necessity. It allows these animals to hear predators and prey without seeing them in the dark skies or cloudy oceans. This adaptation evolved separately in these mammals—a great example of convergent evolution.

Scientists at Queen Mary, University of London were curious how this type of convergent evolution looked at the genomic level. So they compared the complete genomes of 22 mammals, including new sequences of four bat species, to look at how echolocation is expressed in the genes.

To perform the analysis, the team had to sift through millions of “letters” of genetic code using a computer program developed to calculate the probability of convergent changes occurring by chance, so they could reliably identify “odd-man-out” genes.

Remarkably, they found genetic signatures consistent with convergence in nearly 200 different genomic regions! “We had expected to find identical changes in maybe a dozen or so genes but to see nearly 200 is incredible,” explains Queen Mary team member Joe Parker. “We know natural selection is a potent driver of gene sequence evolution, but identifying so many examples where it produces nearly identical results in the genetic sequences of totally unrelated animals is astonishing.”

Although many of the gene region similarities are in genes involved in hearing, which the team expected, others are all over the place, reports ScienceNOW:

…some genes with shared changes are important for vision, but most have functions that are unknown.

The team published their findings last week in Nature.

“These results could be the tip of the iceberg,” says group leader Stephen Rossiter. “As the genomes of more species are sequenced and studied, we may well see other striking cases of convergent adaptations being driven by identical genetic changes.”

So perhaps not a super-power, but a regular occurrence…

Image: Greg Hume

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