Evolution may not be as random as we thought

A close up of a double helix strand of DNA in gold
A close up of a double helix strand of DNA in gold. Photo by ANIRUDH on Unsplash
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New research, conducted by a team of researchers including Professor James McInerney and Dr. Alan Beavan from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Nottingham, along with Dr. Maria Rosa Domingo-Sananes from Nottingham Trent University, has concluded that evolution is not as random as was previously understood. It may have a more predicted pattern, which could mean more information for advancements in a variety of fieldsm such as medicine, synthetic biology, and environmental science.

What is evolution? The Idea that Changed the World: Darwin and Evolution by Natural Selection

Evolution is the change in the heritable characteristics of biological populations over successive generations. Evolution occurs when evolutionary processes such as natural selection, genetic mutation, gene flow and genetic drift act on genetic variation, resulting in certain characteristics becoming more or less common within a population over successive generations. The process of evolution has given rise to biodiversity at every level of biological organisation on Earth.

The researchers conducted the study by analysing the pangenome, which is a complete set of genes withing a species. They relied on a machine learning technique known as Random Forest, using it to process dasta from 2,500 complete genomes of one bacterial species.

“We used machine learning to predict the presence of variable genes in a large set of Escherichia coli strains, using other variable genes as predictors. We find a large proportion of genes are predictable, suggesting selection plays a role in their acquisition, loss, and maintenance. We show that some genes are consistently associated with the presence or absence of others. These results have implications for understanding evolutionary dynamics in prokaryotic genomes.”, say the authors in the study.

“The implications of this research are nothing short of revolutionary,” said Professor McInerney, the lead author of the study.

“By demonstrating that evolution is not as random as we once thought, we’ve opened the door to an array of possibilities in synthetic biology, medicine, and environmental science.”

The team created gene families from the genomes in order to compare similarities and once the families were identified, the team analysed how the families were present in some genones and absent in others.

Dr. Domingo-Sananes explained, “We found that some gene families never turned up in a genome when a particular other gene family was already there, and on other occasions, some genes were very much dependent on a different gene family being present.”

This analysis has helped the team to show that genes can cooperate or be in conflict with one another.

“These interactions between genes make aspects of evolution somewhat predictable and furthermore, we now have a tool that allows us to make those predictions,” said Dr. Domingo-Sananes.

“From this work, we can begin to explore which genes ‘support’ an antibiotic resistance gene, for example. Therefore, if we are trying to eliminate antibiotic resistance, we can target not just the focal gene, but we can also target its supporting genes,” said Dr. Beavan.

“We can use this approach to synthesize new kinds of genetic constructs that could be used to develop new drugs or vaccines. Knowing what we now know has opened the door to a whole host of other discoveries.”

This research can go a long way in the fight against antibiotic resistance, perhaps helping to create targeted treatment for it. It further provides significant opportunities in various fields including medicine for the creation of personalised medication, and climate change mitigation in terms of the use of microorganisms for carbon capture and degrading pollutants.

Read the full study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.