Natural selection versus neutral mutation in the evolution of subterranean life: A false dichotomy?
David C. Culver, Johanna E. Kowalko, Tanja Pipan
2023 Volume 11
Throughout the evolutionary tree, there are gains and losses of morphological features, physiological processes, and behavioral patterns. Losses are perhaps nowhere so prominent as for subterranean organisms, which typically show reductions or losses of eyes and pigment. These losses seem easy to explain without recourse to natural selection. Its most modern form is the accumulation of selectively neutral, structurally reducing mutations. Selectionist explanations include direct selection, often involving metabolic efficiency in resource poor subterranean environments, and pleiotropy, where genes affecting eyes and pigment have other effects, such as increasing extra-optic sensory structures. This dichotomy echoes the debate in evolutionary biology in general about the sufficiency of natural selection as an explanation of evolution, e.g., Kimura's neutral mutation theory. Tests of the two hypotheses have largely been one-sided, with data supporting that one or the other processes is occurring. While these tests have utilized a variety of subterranean organisms, the Mexican cavefish, <jats:italic>Astyanax mexicanus</jats:italic>, which has eyed extant ancestral-like surface fish conspecifics, is easily bred in the lab, and whose whole genome has been sequenced, is the favored experimental organism. However, with few exceptions, tests for selection versus neutral mutations contain limitations or flaws. Notably, these tests are often one sided, testing for the presence of one or the other process. In fact, it is most likely that both processes occur and make a significant contribution to the two most studied traits in cave evolution: eye and pigment reduction. Furthermore, narrow focus on neutral mutation hypothesis versus selection to explain cave-evolved traits often fails, at least in the simplest forms of these hypotheses, to account for aspects that are likely essential for understanding cave evolution: migration or epigenetic effects. Further, epigenetic effects and phenotypic plasticity have been demonstrated to play an important role in cave evolution in recent studies. Phenotypic plasticity does not by itself result in genetic change of course, but plasticity can reveal cryptic genetic variation which then selection can act on. These processes may result in a radical change in our thinking about evolution of subterranean life, especially the speed with which it may occur. Thus, perhaps it is better to ask what role the interaction of genes and environment plays, in addition to natural selection and neutral mutation.
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