Researchers reveal the first pervasive rule of evolution

March 18th, 2008 - 1:48 pm ICT by admin  

Washington, March 18 (ANI): Researchers have disclosed what may well be the first all-encompassing rule of evolution that life is destined to become more complex.

This, the researchers say, suggests that evolution drives animals to become increasingly more complex.

Dr Matthew Wills from the Department of Biology & Biochemistry at the University of Bath, along with colleagues Sarah Adamowicz from the University of Waterloo (Canada) and Andy Purvis from Imperial College London, sifted through the last 550 million years of the fossil catalogue to the present day, and examined the different evolutionary branches of the crustacean family tree.

They were carrying out the experiment to seek examples along the tree where animals evolved that were simpler than their ancestors.

Instead they found organisms with increasingly more complex structures and features, suggesting that there is some mechanism driving change in this direction.

If you start with the simplest possible animal body, then theres only one direction to evolve in you have to become more complex, said Dr Wills.

Sooner or later, however, you reach a level of complexity where its possible to go backwards and become simpler again. Whats astonishing is that hardly any crustaceans have taken this backwards route. Instead, almost all branches have evolved in the same direction, becoming more complex in parallel. This is the nearest thing to a pervasive evolutionary rule thats been found.

Of course, there are exceptions within the crustacean family tree, but most of these are parasites, or animals living in remote habitats such as isolated marine caves. For those free-living animals in the rat-race of evolution, it seems that competition may be the driving force behind the trend.

Whats new about our results is that they show us how this increase in complexity has occurred. Strikingly, it looks far more like a disciplined march than a milling crowd, he added.

Dr Adamowicz said that earlier studies noticed increasing morphological complexity in the fossil record, but this pattern can occur due to the chance origination of a few new types of animals.

However, its their work which used information about the inter-relatedness of different animal groups the Tree of Life to show that complexity has evolved numerous times independently.

Like all arthropods, crustaceans bodies are built up of repeating segments. In the simplest crustaceans, the segments are quite similar - one after the other. In the most complex, such as shrimps and lobsters, almost every segment is different, bearing antennae, jaws, claws, walking legs, paddles and gills.

The American biologist Leigh Van Valen coined the phrase Red Queen for the evolutionary arms race phenomenon. In Through the Looking-Glass Lewis Carrolls Red Queen advises Alice that: It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.

Those crustacean groups going extinct tended to be less complex than the others around at the time, said Dr Wills.

Theres even a link between average complexity within a group and the number of species alive today. All organisms have a common ancestor, so that every living species is part of a giant family tree of life, he added.

Dr Adamowicz said: With a few exceptions, once branches of the tree have separated they continue to evolve independently. Looking at many independent branches is similar to viewing multiple repeated runs of the tape of evolution.

Our results apply to a group of animals with bodies made of repeated units. We must not forget that bacteria very simple organisms are among the most successful living things. Therefore, the trend towards complexity is compelling but does not describe the history of all life, he added.

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (ANI)

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