Acquisition of Germ Plasm Accelerates Vertebrate Evolution

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Science  11 Apr 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6180, pp. 200-203
DOI: 10.1126/science.1249325

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Tangling Evolutionary Trees

Evolutionary rates tend to vary among taxa and may result in phylogenetic trees that do not reflect the true relationships among taxa, depending on the sequences input into the analysis. Examining vertebrate trees, Evans et al. (p. 200) demonstrate that differences in evolutionary rates, leading to phylogenetic distortions, are correlated with the mechanisms underlying germ cell formation. Evolutionary rate is faster in cases where germ cells are established by maternal molecules (“preformed”) relative to those that are induced during embryogenesis (“epigenesis”) in slowly evolving and, presumably, ancestral lineages. For example, frogs evolve more rapidly than salamanders, and teleosts more rapidly than ascipenseriform fishes. Thus, epigenesis constrains the ability of gene regulatory networks to change, with the repeated and convergent evolution of preformation eliminating this constraint.


Primordial germ cell (PGC) specification occurs either by induction from pluripotent cells (epigenesis) or by a cell-autonomous mechanism mediated by germ plasm (preformation). Among vertebrates, epigenesis is basal, whereas germ plasm has evolved convergently across lineages and is associated with greater speciation. We compared protein-coding sequences of vertebrate species that employ preformation with their sister taxa that use epigenesis and demonstrate that genes evolve more rapidly in species containing germ plasm. Furthermore, differences in rates of evolution appear to cause phylogenetic incongruence in protein-coding sequence comparisons between vertebrate taxa. Our results support the hypothesis that germ plasm liberates constraints on somatic development and that enhanced evolvability drives the evolution of germ plasm.

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