Contrasting genetic paths to morphological and physiological evolution

Contrasting genetic paths to morphological and physiological evolution

Ben-Yang Liao, Meng-Pin Weng, and Jianzhi Zhang

Published online before print April 5, 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0910339107


The relative importance of protein function change and gene expression change in phenotypic evolution is a contentious, yet central topic in evolutionary biology. Analyzing 5,199 mouse genes with recorded mutant phenotypes, we find that genes exclusively affecting morphological traits when mutated (dubbed “morphogenes”) are grossly enriched with transcriptional regulators, whereas those exclusively affecting physiological traits (dubbed “physiogenes”) are enriched with channels, transporters, receptors, and enzymes. Compared to physiogenes, morphogenes are more likely to be essential and pleiotropic and less likely to be tissue specific. Morphogenes evolve faster in expression profile, but slower in protein sequence and gene gain/loss than physiogenes. Thus, morphological and physiological changes have a differential molecular basis; separating them helps discern the genetic mechanisms of phenotypic evolution.

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