Resurrecting the role of transcription factor change in developmental evolution

Evolution. 2008 Sep;62(9):2131-54. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2008.00440.x. Epub 2008 Jun 28.


A long-standing question in evolutionary and developmental biology concerns the relative contribution of cis-regulatory and protein changes to developmental evolution. Central to this argument is which mutations generate evolutionarily relevant phenotypic variation? A review of the growing body of evolutionary and developmental literature supports the notion that many developmentally relevant differences occur in the cis-regulatory regions of protein-coding genes, generally to the exclusion of changes in the protein-coding region of genes. However, accumulating experimental evidence demonstrates that many of the arguments against a role for proteins in the evolution of gene regulation, and the developmental evolution in general, are no longer supported and there is an increasing number of cases in which transcription factor protein changes have been demonstrated in evolution. Here, we review the evidence that cis-regulatory evolution is an important driver of phenotypic evolution and provide examples of protein-mediated developmental evolution. Finally, we present an argument that the evolution of proteins may play a more substantial, but thus far underestimated, role in developmental evolution.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental*
  • Morphogenesis*
  • Phenotype
  • Regulatory Elements, Transcriptional*
  • Transcription Factors / physiology*


  • Transcription Factors