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Open Access Publications from the University of California

An adaptive radiation model for the origin of new gene functions


The evolution of new gene functions is one of the keys to evolutionary innovation. Most novel functions result from gene duplication followed by divergence. However, the models hitherto proposed to account for this process are not fully satisfactory. The classic model of neofunctionalization holds that the two paralogous gene copies resulting from a duplication are functionally redundant, such that one of them can evolve under no functional constraints and occasionally acquire a new function. This model lacks a convincing mechanism for the new gene copies to increase in frequency in the population and survive the mutational load expected to accumulate under neutrality, before the acquisition of the rare beneficial mutations that would confer new functionality. The subfunctionalization model has been proposed as an alternative way to generate genes with altered functions. This model also assumes that new paralogous gene copies are functionally redundant and therefore neutral, but it predicts that relaxed selection will affect both gene copies such that some of the capabilities of the parent gene will disappear in one of the copies and be retained in the other. Thus, the functions originally present in a single gene will be partitioned between the two descendant copies. However, although this model can explain increases in gene number, it does not really address the main evolutionary question, which is the development of new biochemical capabilities. Recently, a new concept has been introduced into the gene evolution literature which is most likely to help solve this dilemma. The key point is to allow for a period of natural selection for the duplication per se, before new function evolves, rather than considering gene duplication to be neutral as in the previous models. Here, I suggest a new model that draws on the advantage of postulating selection for gene duplication, and proposes that bursts of adaptive gene amplification in response to specific selection pressures provide the raw material for the evolution of new function.

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