Genetic diversity and the origin of innovations in life’s evolution
Prof. Andreas Wagner
Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich
Life can be viewed as a four billion year long history of evolutionary adaptations and innovations. These range from dramatic macroscopic innovations like the evolution of wings or eyes, to a myriad molecular changes that form the basis of macroscopic innovations. We know many examples of such innovations – qualitatively new phenotypes that provide an advantage to their bearer – but we have no systematic understanding of the principles that allow organisms to innovate. Most phenotypic innovations result from changes in three classes of systems: metabolic networks, regulatory circuits, and protein or RNA molecules. I will discuss evidence that these classes of systems share two important features that are important for their ability to innovate. I then review recent experiments from my lab that illustrate how one of these features can facilitate the evolution of new traits. This is the ability to create genetic variation that is cryptic, that is, not visible on the phenotypic level. These experiments show that even biodiversity without visible phenotypic effects can facilitate Darwinian evolution, and thus the creation of more biodiversity.