Constrained vertebrate evolution by pleiotropic genes

Nat Ecol Evol. 2017 Nov;1(11):1722-1730. doi: 10.1038/s41559-017-0318-0. Epub 2017 Sep 25.


Despite morphological diversification of chordates over 550 million years of evolution, their shared basic anatomical pattern (or 'bodyplan') remains conserved by unknown mechanisms. The developmental hourglass model attributes this to phylum-wide conserved, constrained organogenesis stages that pattern the bodyplan (the phylotype hypothesis); however, there has been no quantitative testing of this idea with a phylum-wide comparison of species. Here, based on data from early-to-late embryonic transcriptomes collected from eight chordates, we suggest that the phylotype hypothesis would be better applied to vertebrates than chordates. Furthermore, we found that vertebrates' conserved mid-embryonic developmental programmes are intensively recruited to other developmental processes, and the degree of the recruitment positively correlates with their evolutionary conservation and essentiality for normal development. Thus, we propose that the intensively recruited genetic system during vertebrates' organogenesis period imposed constraints on its diversification through pleiotropic constraints, which ultimately led to the common anatomical pattern observed in vertebrates.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Genetic Pleiotropy*
  • Phylogeny
  • Vertebrates / anatomy & histology
  • Vertebrates / genetics*
  • Vertebrates / growth & development