We’ve talked previously on The G-CAT about how the genetic underpinning of certain evolutionary traits can change in different directions depending on the selective pressure it is under. Particularly, we can see how the frequency of different alleles might change in one direction or another, or stabilise somewhere in the middle, depending on its encoded trait. But thinking bigger picture than just the genetics of one trait, we can actually see that evolution as an entire process works rather similarly.
The classic view of the direction of evolution is based on divergent evolution. This is simply the idea that a particular species possess some ancestraltrait. The species (or population) then splits into two (for one reason or another), and each one of these resultant species and populations evolves in a different way to the other. Over time, this means that their traits are changing in different directions, but ultimately originate from the same ancestral source.
Evidence for divergent evolution is rife throughout nature, and is a fundamental component of all of our understanding of evolution. Divergent evolution means that, by comparing similar traits in two species (called homologous traits), we can trace back species histories to common ancestors. Some impressive examples of this exist in nature, such as the number of bones in most mammalian species. Humans have the same number of neck bones as giraffes; thus, we can suggest that the ancestor of both species (and all mammals) probably had a similar number of neck bones. It’s just that the giraffe lineage evolved longer bones whereas other lineages did not.
A more dramatic (and potentially obvious) example of convergent evolution would be wings and the power of flight. Despite the fact that butterflies, bees, birds and bats all have wings and can fly, most of them are pretty unrelated to one another. It seems much more likely that flight evolved independently multiple times, rather than the other 99% of species that shared the same ancestor lost the capacity of flight.
Parallel evolution is an interesting field of research for a few reasons. Firstly, it provides a scenario in which we can more rigorously test expectations and outcomes of evolution in a particular environment. For example, if we find traits that are parallel in a whole bunch of fish species in a particular region, we can start to look at how that particular environment drives evolution across all fish species, as opposed to one species case studies.
So, where is evolution going for nature? Well, the answer is probably all over the place, but steered by the current environmental circumstances. Predicting the evolutionary impacts of particular environmental change (e.g. climate change) is exceedingly difficult but a critical component of understanding the process of evolution and the future of species. Evolution continually surprises us with creative solution to complex problems and I have no doubt new mysteries will continue to be thrown at us as we delve deeper.
If bigger is better, then biggest is best. Having the genome of a particular study species fully sequenced allows us to potentially look at all of the genetic variation in the entire gene pool: but how do we sequence the entirety of the genome? And what are the benefits of having a whole genome to refer to?
Well, assembling the whole genome of an organism for the first time is a very tricky process. It involves taking DNA sequence from only a few individuals, breaking them down into smaller fragments and multiplying these fragments into the billions (moreorless the same process used in other genomics technologies: the real difference is that we need the full breadth of the genome so that we don’t miss any spaces). From these fragments, we use a complex computer algorithm which builds up a consensus sequence like a Lego tower; by finding parts of sequences which overlap, the software figures out which pieces connect to one another. Hopefully, we eventually end up with one very long continuous sequence; the genome! Sometimes, we might end with a few very large blocks (called contigs), but this is also useful for analyses (correlated with how many/big blocks there are). With this full genome, we use information from other more completed genomes (such as those from model species like humans, mice or even worms) to figure out which sections of the genome relate to specific genes. We can then annotate these sections by labelling them as clear genes, complete with start and end point, and attach a particular physical function of that gene.
The benefits of whole genomes
Having an entire genome as a reference is an extremely helpful tool in conservation and evolutionary studies. The first, and perhaps most obvious benefit, is the sheer scale of the data we can use. By having the entirety of the genome available, we can use potentially billions of base pairs of sequence in our genetic analyses (for reference, the human genome is >3 billion base pairs long). Even if we don’t sequence the full genome for all of our samples, having a reference genome as basis for assembly our reduced datasets significantly improves the quantity and quality of sequences we can use.
Another very important benefit is the ability to prescribe function in our studies. Many of our processes for obtaining data, even for genomic technologies, use random and anonymous fragments of the genome. Although this is a cost-effective way to obtain a very large amount of data, it unfortunately means that we often have no idea which part of the genome our sequences came from. This means that we don’t know which sequences relate to specific genes, and even if we did we would have no idea what those genes are or do! But with an annotated genome, we can take even our fragmented sequence and check it against the genome and find out what genes are present.
Based on that, it seems pretty obvious about exactly how having an annotated genome can help us in studies of adaptation. Knowing the functional aspect of our genetic data allows us to more directly determine how evolution is happening in nature; instead of only being able to say that two species are evolving differently from one another, for example, we can explicitly look at how they are evolving. Is one evolving tolerance to hotter temperatures? Are they evolving different genes to handle different diets? Are they evolving in response to an external influence, like a viral outbreak or changing climate? What are the physiological consequences of these changes? These questions are critical in understanding past and future evolution, and full genome analysis allows us to delve into them much deeper.
This includes allowing us to better understand how adaptation actually works in nature. As we’ve discussed before, more traditional studies often assumed that single, or very few, genes were responsible for allowing a species to adapt and change, and that these genes had very strong effects on their physiology. But what we see far more often is polygenic adaptation; small changes in a very large number of genes which, combined together, allow the species to adapt and evolve. By having the entirety of the genome available, we are much more likely to capture all of the genes that are under natural selection in a particular population or species, painting a clearer picture of their evolutionary trajectory.
While many non-model species are still lacking in the available genomic information, whole genomes are progressively being sequenced for more and more species. As this astronomical dataset grows, our ability to investigate, discover and test theories about evolution, natural selection and conservation will also improve. Many projects already exist which aim specifically to increase the number of whole genomes available for certain taxonomic groups such as birds and bats: these will no doubt prove to be invaluable resources for future studies.
But the real question is: why are there so many endemics in Australia? What is so special about our country that lends to our unique flora and fauna? Although we naturally associate tropical regions with lush, vibrant and diverse life, most of Australia is complete desert. That said, most of our species are concentrated in the tropical regions of the country, particularly in the upper east coast and far north (the ‘Top End’).
There are a number of different factors which contribute to the high species diversity of Australia. Most notably is how isolated we are as a continent: Australia has been separated from most of the rest of the world for millions of years. In this time, the climate has varied dramatically as the island shifted northward, creating a variety of changing environments and unique ecological niches for species to specialise into. We refer to these species groups as ‘Gondwana relicts’, since their last ancestor with the rest of the world would have been distributed across the supercontinent Gondwana over 100 million years ago. These include marsupials, many birds groups (including ratites and megapodes), many fish groups and a plethora of others. A Gondwanan origin explains why they are only found within Australia, southern Africa and South America (the closest landmass that was also historically connected to Gondwana).
Early arrivals and naturalisation to the Australian ecosystem
Eventually, this connection also brought with them one of our most iconic species; the dingo. Estimates of their arrival dates the migration at around 6 thousand years ago. As Australia’s only ‘native’ dog, there has been much debate about its status as an Australian icon. To call the dingo ‘native’ implies it’s always been there: but 6 thousand years is more than enough time to become ingrained within the ecosystem in a stable fashion. So, to balance the debate (and prevent the dingo from being labelled as an ‘invasive pest’ unfairly), we often refer to them as ‘naturalised’. This term helps us to disentangle modern-day pests, many of which our immensely destructive to the natural environment, from other species that have naturally migrated and integrated many years ago.
Invaders of the Australian continent
Of course, we can never ignore the direct impacts of humans on the ecosystem. Particularly with European settlement, another plethora of animals were introduced for the first time into Australia; these were predominantly livestock animals or hunting-related species (both as predators and prey). This includes the cane toad, widely regarded as one of the biggest errors in pest control on the planet.
When European settlers in the 1930s attempted to grow sugar cane in the far eastern part of the country, they found their crops decimated by a local beetle. In an effort to eradicate them, they brought over a species of cane toad, with the idea that they would control the beetle population and all would be well. Only, cane toads are particularly lazy and instead of targeting the cane beetles, they just thrived on all the other native invertebrates around. They’re also very resilient and adaptable (and highly toxic), so their numbers exploded and they’ve since spread across a large swathe of the country. Their toxic skin makes them fatal food objects for many native predators and they strongly compete against other similar native animals (such as our own amphibians). The cane toad introduction of 1935 is the poster child of how bad failed pest control can be.
But is native always better?
History tells a very stark tale about the poor native animals and the ravenous, rampaging pest species. Because of this, it is a widely adopted philosophical viewpoint that ‘native is always best’. And while I don’t disagree with the sentiment (of course we need to preserve our native wildlife, and not the massively overabundant pests), there are rare examples where nature is a little more complicated. In Australia, this is exemplified in the noisy miner.
The noisy miner is a small bird which, much like its name implies, is incredibly noisy and aggressive. It’s highly abundant, found predominantly throughout urban and suburban areas, and seems to dominate the habitat. It does this by bullying out other bird species from nesting grounds, creating a monopoly on the resource to the exclusion of many other species (even larger ones such as crows and magpies). Despite being native, it seems to have thrived on human alteration of the landscape and is a serious threat to the survival and longevity of many other species. If we thought of it solely under the ‘nature is best’ paradigm, we would dismiss the noisy miner as ‘doing what it should be.’ The truth is really more of a philosophical debate: is it natural to let the noisy miner outcompete many other natives, possibly resulting in their extinction? Or is it only because of human interference (and thus is our responsibility to fix) that the noisy miner is doing so well in the first place? It’s not a simple question to answer, although the latter seems to be incredibly important.
The amazing biodiversity of Australia is a badge of honour we should wear with patriotic pride. Conservation efforts of our endemic fauna are severely limited by a lack of funding and resources, and despite a general acceptance of the importance of diverse ecosystems we remain relatively ineffective at preserving it. Understanding and connecting with our native wildlife, whilst finding methods to control invasive species, is key to conserving our wonderful ecosystems.
‘Diversity’ is a term that gets used a lot these days, albeit usually in reference to social changes and structures. However, diversity is not merely a human construct and reflects an extremely important aspect of the natural world at a variety of levels. From the smallest genes to the biggest ecosystems, diversity is a trait that confers a massive range of benefits to individuals, populations, species and even the entire globe. Let’s dissect this diversity down at different scales and see how beneficial it can be.
At the smallest scale in the hierarchy of genetic differentiation, we have the genes themselves. It is a well-established concept that having a diversity of genetic variants (alleles) within a population or species is critical to their future adaptation, evolution and persistance. This is because different alleles will have different benefits (or costs) depending on the environmental pressure that influences them; natural selection might favour one allele over another at one time, but a different one as the pressure changes. Having a higher number of alleles within the population or species means that there is a greater chance at least a few individuals will possess an adaptive gene with the changing environment (which we know can be quite rapid and very, very strong). The diversity serves as a ‘buffer’ against extinction; evolution by natural selection functions best when there are many options to choose from.
Without this diversity, species run the risk of having no adaptive genes at the ready to deal with a selective pressure. Either a new adaptive gene must mutate (or come about in other ways, such as through gene flow from another population or species) or the population/species will suffer and potentially go extinct. As strong selection causes the species to dwindle, it enters what is referred to as the ‘extinction vortex’. Without genetic diversity, they can’t adapt: thus, more individuals die off, causing more genetic diversity to be lost from the population. This pattern is a vicious cycle which can inevitably destroy species (without serious intervention).
For this reason, captive breeding programs aim to maintain as much of the genetic diversity of the original population as possible. This reduces the probability of entering a downward extinction spiral from inbreeding depression and helps to maintain populations into the future (both the captive one and the wild population when we reintroduce individuals into the wild).
Because genetic diversity is critically important for species survival, we must also try to preserve the diversity of the entire gene pool of a species. This means conserving highly genetically differentiated populations within a species as a priority, as they may be the only ones that possess the necessary adaptive genes to save the rest of the species. This adaptive genetic variation can then be introduced into other populations in genetic rescue programs and serve as a means to semi-naturally allow the species to evolve. Evolutionarily-significant units (ESUs) are one measure of the invaluable nature of genetically unique populations.
Although many more traditional conservationists strongly believe that ESUs should be managed entirely independently of one another (to preserve their evolutionary ‘pedigree’ and prevent the risk of outbreeding depression), it has been suggested that the benefit of genetic rescue in many cases significantly outweighs this risk of outbreeding depression. For some species, this really is an act of rescue: they are at the edge of extinction, and if we do nothing we condemn them to die out.
Introducing genetic material across populations (or even species!) can generate new functional genes that allow the recipient species to adapt to selective pressures. This might sound very strange, and could be extremely rare, but examples of adaptive genetic material in one species originating from another species through hybridisation do exist in nature. For example, the black coat of wolves is a highly adaptive trait in some populations and is encoded for by the Melanocortin 1 receptor (Mc1r) gene. However, the specific mutation in Mc1r gene that generates the black coat colour actually first originated in domestic dogs; when wild wolves and domestic dogs interbred, this mutation was transferred into the wolf gene pool. Natural selection strongly favoured this new variant, and it very rapidly underwent strong positive selection. Thus, the adaptiveness of black wolves is thanks to a domestic dog mutation!
At a higher level of the hierarchy, the diversity of species within a particular community or ecosystem has been shown to be important for the health and stability of said community. Every species, however small or seemingly unimpressive, plays a role in the greater ecosystem balance, through interactions with other species (e.g. as predator, as prey, as competitor) and the abiotic environment. While some species are known to have very strong impacts on the immediate ecosystem (often dubbed ‘keystone species’, such as apex predators), all species have some influence on the world around them (we’re especially good at it).
The overall health and stability of an ecosystem, as well as the benefits it can provide to all living things (including humans) is largely determined by the diversity of species. For example, ‘habitat engineers’ are types of species that, by altering the physical environment around them (such as to build a home), directly provide new habitat for other species. They are a fundamental underpinning of many incredibly vibrant ecosystems; think of what a reef system would look like if there were no corals in it. There’d be no anemones growing colourfully; no fish to live in them; no sharks to feed on these non-existent fish. This is just one example of a complex ecosystem that truly relies on its inhabiting species to function.
Protecting our diversity
Diversity is not just a social construct and is an important phenomenon in nature, at a variety of different levels. Preserving the full diversity of life, from genetic diversity within populations and species to full species diversity within ecosystems, is critical to maintaining healthy and robust natural systems. The more diversity we have at each level of this hierarchy, the greater robustness and security we will have in the future.
All of these questions can be addressed with a combination of genetic, environmental and ecological information across a variety of timescales. However, the overall field of biogeography (and phylogeography as a derivative of it) has traditionally been largely rooted on a strong yet changing theoretical basis. The earliest discussions and discoveries related to biogeography as a field of science date back to the 18th Century, and to Carl Linnaeus (to whom we owe our binomial classification system) and Alexander von Humboldt. These scientists (and undoubtedly many others of that era) were among the first to notice how organisms in similar climates (e.g. Australia, South Africa and South America) showed similar physical characteristics despite being so distantly separated (both in their groups and geographic distance). The communities of these regions also appeared to be highly similar. So how could this be possible over such huge distances?
Dispersal or vicariance?
Two main explanations for these patterns are possible; dispersal and vicariance. As one might expect, dispersal denotes that an ancestral species was distributed in one of these places (referred to as the ‘centre of origin’) before it migrated and inhabited the other places. Contrastingly, vicariancesuggests that the ancestral species was distributed everywhere originally, covering all contemporary ranges within it. However, changes in geography, climate or the formation of other barriers caused the range of the ancestor to fragment, with each fragmented group evolving into its own distinct species (or group of species).
In initial biogeographic science, dispersal was the most heavily favoured explanation. At the time, there was no clear mechanism by which organisms could be present all over the globe without some form of dispersal: it was generally believed that the world was a static, unmoving system. Dispersal was well supported by some biological evidence such as the diversification of Darwin’s finches across the Galápagos archipelago. Thus, this concept was supported through the proposals of a number of prominent scientists such as Charles Darwin and A.R. Wallace. For others, however, the distance required for dispersal (such as across entire oceans) seemed implausible and biologically unrealistic.
A paradigm shift in biogeography
Two particular developments in theory are credited with a paradigm shift in the field; cladistics and plate tectonics. Cladistics simply involved using shared biological characteristics to reconstruct the evolutionary relationships of species (think like phylogenetics, but using physical traits instead of genetic sequence). Just as importantly, however, was plate tectonic theory, which provided a clear way for organisms to spread across the planet. By understanding that, deep in the past, all continents had been directly connected to one another provides a convenient explanation for how species groups spread. Instead of requiring for species to travel across entire oceans, continental drift meant that one widespread and ancient ancestor on the historic supercontinent (Pangaea; or subsequently Gondwana and Laurasia) could become fragmented. It only required that groups were very old, but not necessarily very dispersive.
From these advances in theory, cladistic vicariance biogeography was born. The field rapidly overtook dispersal as the most likely explanation for biogeographic patterns across the globe by not only providing a clear mechanism to explain these but also an analytical framework to test questions relating to these patterns. Further developments into the analytical backbone of cladistic vicariance allowed for more nuanced questions of biogeography to be asked, although still fundamentally ignored the role of potential dispersals in explaining species’ distributions.
Modern philosophy of biogeography
So, what is the current state of the field? Well, the more we research biogeographic patterns with better data (such as with genomics) the more we realise just how complicated the history of life on Earth can be. Complex modelling (such as Bayesian methods) allow us to more explicitly test the impact of Earth history events on our study species, and can provide more detailed overview of the evolutionary history of the species (such as by directly estimating times of divergence, amount of dispersal, extent of range shifts).
From a theoretical perspective, the consistency of patterns of groups is always in question and exactly what determines what species occurs where is still somewhat debatable. However, the greater number of types of data we can now include (such as geological, paleontological, climatic, hydrological, genetic…the list goes on!) allows us to paint a better picture of life on Earth. By combining information about what we know happened on Earth, with what we know has happened to species, we can start to make links between Earth history and species history to better understand how (or if) these events have shaped evolution.
Climate change seems to be the centrefold of a large amount of scientific research and media attention, and rightly so: it has the capacity to affect every living organism on the planet. It’s our duty as curators and residents of Earth to be responsible for our influences on the global environmental stage. While a significant part of this involves determining causes and solutions to our contributions to climate change, we also need to know how extensive the effects will be: for example, how can we predict how well species will do in the future?
Predicting the effect of climate change on all of the world’s biodiversity is an immense task. Climate change itself is a complicated system, and causes diverse, interconnected and complex alterations to both global and local climate. Adding on top of this, though, is that climate affects different species in different ways; where some species might be sensitive to some climatic variables (such as rainfall, available sunlight, seasonality), others may be more tolerant to the same factors. But all living things share some requirements, so surely there must be some consistency in their responses to climate change, right?
How predictable are species responses to climate change?
Well, evidence would surprisingly suggest not. Many species, even closely related ones, can show very different responses to the exact same climatic pressures or biogeographical events. There are a number of different traits that might affect a species’ ability to adapt, particularly their adaptive genetic diversity (which underpins ‘adaptive potential’). Thus, we need good information of a variety of genetic, physiological and life history traits to be able to make predictions about how likely a species is to adapt and respond to future (and current) climate changes.
Although this can be hard to study in species of high extinction risk (getting a good number of samples is always an issue…), traditional phylogeographic methods might help us to make some comparisons. See, although the modern Earth is rapidly changing (undoubtedly influenced by human society), the climate of the globe has always varied to some degree. There has always been some tumultuousness in the climate and specific Earth history events like volcano eruptions, sea-level changes, or glaciation periods (‘ice ages’) have had diverse effects on organisms globally.
Using comparative phylogeography to predict species responses
One tool for looking at how different species have, in the past, responded to the same biogeographical force is the domain of ‘comparative phylogeography’. Phylogeography itself is something we have discussed before: the ‘comparative’ aspect simply means comparing (with complex statistical methods) these patterns across different and often unrelated species to see how universal (‘congruent’) or unique (‘incongruent’) these patterns are among species. The more broadly we look at the species community in the region, the more we can observe widespread effects of any given environmental or geographical event: if we only look at fish, for example, we might not to be able to infer what response mammals, birds or invertebrates have had to our given event. Sometimes this still meets the scale we wish to focus; other times, we want to see how all the species of an area have been affected.
Typically, comparative phylogeographic studies have looked at the neutral components of species’ evolution (as is the realm of traditional phylogeography). This includes studying the size of populations over time, how well connected they are and were, what their spatial patterns are and how these relate to the environment. Comparing all of these patterns across species can allow us to start painting a fuller picture of the history of biota in a region. In this way, we can start to see exactly which species have shown what responses and start to relate these to the characteristics that allowed them to respond in that certain way (and including adaptation in our studies). So, what kinds of traits are important?
What traits matter? Who wins?
Often, we find that life history traits of an organism better dictates how they will respond to a certain pressure than other factors such as phylogeny (e.g. one group does not always do better than another). Instead, individual species with certain physical characteristics might handle the pressure better than others. For example, a fish, bird and snake that are all able to tolerate higher temperatures than other fish, birds or snakes in that region are more likely to survive a drought. In this case, none of the groups (fish, birds or snakes) inherently do better than the other two groups. Thus, it can be hard to predict how a large swathe of species will respond to any given environmental change, unless we understand the physical characteristics of every species.
We can also see that other physiological or ecological traits, such as climatic preferences and tolerance thresholds, can be critical for adapting to climatic pressures. Naturally, the genetic diversity of species is also an important component underlying their ability to adapt to these new selective pressures and to survive into the future. Trying to incorporate all of these factors into a projected model can be difficult, but with more data of higher quality we can start to make more refined predictions. But by understanding how particular traits influence how well a species may adapt to a changing climate, as well as knowing the what traits different species have, might just be the key to predicting who wins and who dies in the real-world Game of Thrones.
A fellow science student once drunkenly said that “I am a biologist…I don’t understand art.” Although somewhat bemusing (both in and out of context), it raises a particular philosophical idea that I can’t agree with: that art and science directly contradict one another.
It’s a somewhat clichéd paradigm that art and science must work at odds with one another. The idea that art embraces emotion, creativity and abstract perception whilst science is solely dictated by rationality, methodology and universal statistics is one that still seems to be somewhat pervasive throughout society and culture. While there seems to be a more recent shift against this, with both ends of the spectrum acknowledging the importance of the other in their respective fields, the intersection of art and science has a long and productive history.
Typically, the disjunction from the emotional and evocative state of people with science is through how the science is written. In many formats (particularly for the most widely used scientific journals), artistic and emotional writing is seen to detract from the overall message and objectivity of the piece itself. And while appeal to emotion can certainly take away from or mislead the message of the writing, it’s important to connect and attract readers to the work in the first place. Trying to find a possible avenue to work in personal style and artistry into an academic paper is an incredibly difficult affair. This is a large contributor to the merit of non-journalistic forms of scientific communication such as books, poetry and even blogs (this was one motivator in starting this blog, in fact).
It might come as a surprise to readers that I love art quite a lot, especially given the (lack of) quality of the drawings in this blog. But I’ve always tried to flex my creative side and particular when I was a younger was a more avid writer and sketcher. And that truth of the matter is that I don’t feel that the artistic side of a person has to be at odds with their scientific side. In fact, the two directly complement each other by linking our rational, objective understanding of the world with the emotional, expressive and ideological aspects of the human personality.
The art of science
From one angle, science is actively driven by creativity, ambition and often abstract ideation. The desire to delve deep to find new knowledge is intrinsically an emotional and philosophical process and to pretend that science is devoid of passion discredits both the research and the researcher. Entire disciplines of biology, for example, find themselves driven by science and people with deep emotional connections to the natural world and a desire to both understand and protect the diversity of life. The works of John Gould in his explorations of the Australian biota remain some of my favourites for both scientific and artistic merit.
The science of art
From the other direction, science can also inform artistic works by expanding the human knowledge and experience with which to draw inspiration from. Naturally, this is an intrinsic part of genres such as science fiction, but many works of horror, abstraction, fantasy, thriller also draw on theories and revolutions brought about by scientific discovery. The further we understand the processes of the universe through scientific discovery, the greater the context and extent of our philosophical and emotional perspectives can be allowed to vary.
Gone are the days of dichotomy between 18-19th Century Impressionism and Enlightenment. Instead, the unity of science and art in the modern world can have significant positive contributions to both fields. Although there are still some elements of resistance between the two avenues, it is my belief that by allowing the intrinsically emotional nature of science to be expressed (albeit moderated by reason and logic) will allow science to influence a greater number of people, an especially important connection in the age of cynicism.
Understanding the evolutionary history of species can be a complicated matter, both from theoretical and analytical perspectives. Although phylogenetics addresses many questions about evolutionary history, there are a number of limitations we need to consider in our interpretations.
One of these limitations we often want to explore in better detail is the estimation of the divergence times within the phylogeny; we want to know exactly when two evolutionary lineages (be they genera, species or populations) separated from one another. This is particularly important if we want to relate these divergences to Earth history and environmental factors to better understand the driving forces behind evolution and speciation. A traditional phylogenetic tree, however, won’t show this: the tree is scaled in terms of the genetic differences between the different samples in the tree. The rate of genetic differentiation is not always a linear relationship with time and definitely doesn’t appear to be universal.
How do we do it?
There are a number of parameters that are required for estimating divergence times from a phylogenetic tree. These can be summarised into two distinct categories: the tree model and the substitution model.
The first one of these is relatively easy to explain; it describes the exact relationship of the different samples in our dataset (i.e. the phylogenetic tree). Naturally, this includes the topology of the tree (which determines which divergences times can be estimated for in the first place). However, there is another very important factor in the process: the lengths of the branches within the phylogenetic tree. Branch lengths are related to the amount of genetic differentiation between the different tips of the tree. The longer the branch, the more genetic differentiation that must have accumulated (and usually also meaning that longer time has occurred from one end of the branch to the other). Even two phylogenetic trees with identical topology can give very different results if they vary in their branch lengths (see the above Figure).
However, at least one another important component is necessary to turn divergence time estimates into absolute, objective times. An external factor with an attached date is needed to calibrate the relative branch divergences; this can be in the form of the determined mutation rate for all of the branches of the tree or by dating at least one node in the tree using additional information. These help to anchor either the mutation rate along the branches or the absolute date of at least one node in the tree (with the rest estimated relative to this point). The second method often involves placing a time constraint on a particular node of the tree based on prior information about the biogeography of the species (for example, we might know one species likely diverged from another after a mountain range formed: the age of the mountain range would be our constraints). Alternatively, we might include a fossil in the phylogeny which has been radiocarbon dated and place an absolute age on that instead.
In regards to the former method, mutation rates describe how fast genetic differentiation accumulates as evolution occurs along the branch. Although mutations gradually accumulate over time, the rate at which they occur can depend on a variety of factors (even including the environment of the organism). Even within the genome of a single organism, there can be variation in the mutation rate: genes, for example, often gain mutations slower than non-coding region.
All of these components are combined into various analytical frameworks or programs, each of which handle the data in different ways. Many of these are Bayesian model-based analysis, which in short generates hypothetical models of evolutionary history and divergence times for the phylogeny and tests how well it fits the data provided (i.e. the phylogenetic tree). The algorithm then alters some aspect(s) of the model and tests whether this fits the data better than the previous model and repeats this for potentially millions of simulations to get the best model. Although models are typically a simplification of reality, they are a much more tractable approach to estimating divergence times (as well as a number of other types of evolutionary genetics analyses which incorporating modelling).
Despite the developments in the analytical basis of estimating divergence times in the last few decades, there are still a number of limitations inherent in the process. Many of these relate to the assumptions of the underlying model (such as the correct and accurate phylogenetic tree and the correct estimations of evolutionary rate) used to build the analysis and generate simulations. In the case of calibrations, it is also critical that they are correctly dated based on independent methods: inaccurate radiocarbon dating of a fossil, for example, could throw out all of the estimations in the entire tree. That said, these factors are intrinsic to any phylogenetic analysis and regularly considered by evolutionary biologists in the interpretations and discussions of results (such as by including confidence intervals of estimations to demonstrate accuracy).
Understanding the temporal aspects of evolution and being able to relate them to a real estimate of age is a difficult affair, but an important component of many evolutionary studies. Obtaining good estimates of the timing of divergence of populations and species through molecular dating is but one aspect in building the picture of the history of all organisms, including (and especially) humans.
While evolutionary genetics studies often focus on the underlying genetic architecture of species and populations to understand their evolution, we know that natural selection acts directly on physical characteristics. We call these the phenotype; by studying changes in the genes that determine these traits (the genotype), we can take a nuanced approach at studying adaptation. However, our ability to look at genetic changes and relate these to a clear phenotypic trait, and how and why that trait is under natural selection, can be a difficult task.
One gene for one trait
The simplest (and most widely used) models of understanding the genetic basis of adaptation assume that a single genotype codes for a single phenotypic trait. This means that changes in a single gene (such as outliers that we have identified in our analyses) create changes in a particular physical trait that is under a selective pressure in the environment. This is a useful model because it is statistically tractable to be able to identify few specific genes of very large effect within our genomic datasets and directly relate these to a trait: adding more complexity exponentially increases the difficulty in detecting patterns (at both the genotypic and phenotypic level).
Polygenic adaptation is often seen for traits which are clearly heritable, but don’t show a single underlying gene responsible. Previously, we’ve covered this with the heritability of height: this is one of many examples of ‘quantitative trait loci’ (QTLs). Changes in one QTL (a single gene) causes a small quantitative change in a particular trait; the combined effect of different QTLs together can ‘add up’ (or counteract one another) to result in the final phenotype value.
The mechanisms which underlie polygenic adaptation can be more complex than simple addition, too. Individual genes might cause phenotypic changes which interact with other phenotypes (and their underlying genotypes) to create a network of changes. We call these interactions ‘epistasis’, where changes in one gene can cause a flow-on effect of changes in other genes based on how their resultant phenotypes interact. We can see this in metabolic pathways: given that a series of proteins are often used in succession within pathways, a change in any single protein in the process could affect every other protein in the pathway. Of course, knowing the exact proteins coded for every gene, including their physical structure, and how each of those proteins could interact with other proteins is an immense task. Similar to QTLs, this is usually limited to model species which have a large history of research on these specific areas to back up the study. However, some molecular ecology studies are starting to dive into this area by identifying pathways that are under selection instead of individual genes, to give a broader picture of the overall traits that are underlying adaptation.
One gene for many traits: pleiotropy and differential gene expression
In contrast to polygenic traits, changes in a single gene can also potentially alter multiple phenotypic traits simultaneously. This is referred to as ‘pleiotropy’ and can happen if a gene has multiple different functions within an organism; one particular protein might be a component of several different systems depending on where it is found or how it is arranged. A clear example of pleiotropy is in albino animals: the most common form of albinism is the result of possessing two recessive alleles of a single gene (TYR). The result of this is the absence of the enzyme tyrosinase in the organism, a critical component in the production of melanin. The flow-on phenotypic effects from the recessive gene most obviously cause a lack of pigmentation of the skin (whitening) and eyes (which appear pink), but also other physiological changes such as light sensitivity or total blindness (due to changes in the iris). Albinism has even been attributed to behavioural changes in wild field mice.
Because pleiotropic genes code for several different phenotypic traits, natural selection can be a little more complicated. If some resultant traits are selected against, but others are selected for, it can be difficult for evolution to ‘resolve’ the balance between the two. The overall fitness of the gene is thus dependent on the balance of positive and negative fitness of the different traits, which will determine whether the gene is positively or negatively selected (much like a cost-benefit scenario). Alternatively, some traits which are selectively neutral (i.e. don’t directly provide fitness benefits) may be indirectly selected for if another phenotype of the same underlying gene is selected for.
Multiple phenotypes from a single ‘gene’ can also arise by alternate splicing: when a gene is transcribed from the DNA sequence into the protein, the non-coding intron sections within the gene are removed. However, exactly which introns are removed and how the different coding exons are arranged in the final protein sequence can give rise to multiple different protein structures, each with potentially different functions. Thus, a single overarching gene can lead to many different functional proteins. The role of alternate splicing in adaptation and evolution is a rarely explored area of research and its importance is relatively unknown.
Non-genes for traits: epigenetics
This gets more complicated if we consider ‘non-genetic’ aspects underlying the phenotype in what we call ‘epigenetics’. The phrase literally translates as ‘on top of genes’ and refers to chemical attachments to the DNA which control the expression of genes by allowing or resisting the transcription process. Epigenetics is a relatively new area of research, although studies have started to delve into the role of epigenetic changes in facilitating adaptation and evolution. Although epigenetics is still a relatively new research topic, future research into the relationship between epigenetic changes and adaptive potential might provide more detailed insight into how adaptation occurs in the wild (and might provide a mechanism for adaptation for species with low genetic diversity)!
The different interactions between genotypes, phenotypes and fitness, as well as their complex potential outcomes, inevitably complicates any study of evolution. However, these are important aspects of the adaptation process and to discard them as irrelevant will not doubt reduce our ability to examine and determine evolutionary processes in the wild.
One of the most fundamental aspects of natural selection and evolution is, of course, the underlying genetic traits that shape the physical, selected traits. Most commonly, this involves trying to understand how changes in the distribution and frequencies of particular genetic variants (alleles) occur in nature and what forces of natural election are shaping them. Remember that natural selection acts directly on the physical characteristics of species; if these characteristics are genetically-determined (which many are), then we can observe the flow-on effects on the genetic diversity of the target species.
Although we might expect that natural selection is a fairly predictable force, there are a myriad of ways it can shape, reduce or maintain genetic diversity and identity of populations and species. In the following examples, we’re going to assume that the mentioned traits are coded for by a single gene with two different alleles for simplicity. Thus, one allele = one version of the trait (and can be used interchangeably). With that in mind, let’s take a look at the three main broad types of changes we observe in nature.
Arguably the most traditional perspective of natural selection is referred to as ‘directional selection’. In this example, nature selection causes one allele to be favoured more than another, which causes it to increase dramatically in frequency compared to the alternative allele. The reverse effect (natural selection pushing against a maladaptive allele) is still covered by directional selection, except that it functions in the opposite way (the allele under negative selection has reduced frequency, shifting towards the alternative allele).
Natural selection doesn’t always push allele frequencies into different directions however, and sometimes maintains the diversity of alleles in the population. This is what happens in ‘balancing selection’ (sometimes also referred to as ‘stabilising selection’). In this example, natural selection favours non-extreme allele frequencies, and pushes the distribution of allele frequencies more to the centre. This may happen if deviations from the original gene, regardless of the specific change, can have strongly negative effects on the fitness of an organism, or in genes that are most fit when there is a decent amount of variation within them in the population (such as the MHC region, which contributes to immune response). There are a couple other reasons balancing selection may occur, though.
One example is known as ‘heterozygote advantage’. This is when an organism with two different alleles of a particular gene has greater fitness than an organism with two identical copies of either allele. A seemingly bizarre example of heterozygote advantage is related to sickle cell anaemia in African people. Sickle cell anaemia is a serious genetic disorder which is encoded for by recessive alleles of a haemoglobin gene; thus, a person has to carry two copies of the disease allele to show damaging symptoms. While this trait would ordinarily be strongly selected against in many population, it is maintained in some African populations by the presence of malaria. This seems counterintuitive; why does the presence of one disease maintain another?
Well, it turns out that malaria is not very good at infecting sickle cells; there are a few suggested mechanisms for why but no clear single answer. Naturally, suffering from either sickle cell anaemia or malaria is unlikely to convey fitness benefits. In this circumstance, natural selection actually favours having one sickle cell anaemia allele; while being a carrier isn’t ordinarily as healthy as having no sickle cell alleles, it does actually make the person somewhat resistant to malaria. Thus, in populations where there is a selective pressure from malaria, there is a heterozygote advantage for sickle cell anaemia. For those African populations without likely exposure to malaria, sickle cell anaemia is strongly selected against and less prevalent.
Another form of balancing selection is called ‘frequency-dependent selection’, where the fitness of an allele is inversely proportional to its frequency. Thus, once the allele has become common due to selection, the fitness of that allele is reduced and selection will start to favour the alternative allele (which is at much lower frequency). The constant back-and-forth tipping of the selective scales results in both alleles being maintained at an equilibrium.
This can happen in a number of different ways, but often the rarer trait/allele is fundamentally more fit because of its rarity. For example, if one allele allows an individual to use a new food source, it will be very selectively fit due to the lack of competition with others. However, as that allele accumulates within the population and more individuals start to feed on that food source, the lack of ‘uniqueness’ will mean that it’s not particularly better than the original food source. A balance between the two food sources (and thus alleles) will be maintained over time as shifts towards one will make the other more fit, and natural selection will compensate.
A third category of selection (although not as frequently mentioned) is known as ‘disruptive selection’, which is essentially the direct opposite of balancing selection. In this case, both extremes of allele frequencies are favoured (e.g. 1 for one allele or 1 for the other) but intermediate frequencies are not. This can be difficult to untangle in natural populations since it could technically be attributed to two different cases of directional selection. Each allele of the same gene is directionally selected for, but in opposite populations and directions so that overall pattern shows very little intermediates.
In direct contrast to balancing selection, disruptive selection can often be a case of heterozygote disadvantage (although it’s rarely called that). In these examples, it may be that individuals which are not genetically committed to one end or the other of the frequency spectrum are maladapted since they don’t fit in anywhere. An example would be a species that occupies both the desert and a forested area, with little grassland-type habitat in the middle. For the relevant traits, strongly desert-adapted genes would be selected for in the desert and strongly forest-adapted genes would be selected for in the forest. However, the lack of gradient between the two habitats means that individuals that are half-and-half are less adaptive in both the desert and the forest. A case of jack-of-all-trades, master of none.
Direction of selection
Although it would be convenient if natural selection was entirely predictable, it often catches up by surprise in how it acts and changes species and populations in the wild. Careful analysis and understanding of the different processes and outcomes of adaptation can feed our overall understanding of evolution, and aid in at least pointing in the right direction for our predictions.