From a Few Genes, Life’s Myriad Shapes

From The New York Times:

Dna Since its humble beginnings as a single cell, life has evolved into a spectacular array of shapes and sizes, from tiny fleas to towering Tyrannosaurus rex, from slow-soaring vultures to fast-swimming swordfish, and from modest ferns to alluring orchids. But just how such diversity of form could arise out of evolution’s mess of random genetic mutations — how a functional wing could sprout where none had grown before, or how flowers could blossom in what had been a flowerless world — has remained one of the most fascinating and intractable questions in evolutionary biology. Now finally, after more than a century of puzzling, scientists are finding answers coming fast and furious and from a surprising quarter, the field known as evo-devo. Just coming into its own as a science, evo-devo is the combined study of evolution and development, the process by which a nubbin of a fertilized egg transforms into a full-fledged adult. And what these scientists are finding is that development, a process that has for more than half a century been largely ignored in the study of evolution, appears to have been one of the major forces shaping the history of life on earth.

For starters, evo-devo researchers are finding that the evolution of complex new forms, rather than requiring many new mutations or many new genes as had long been thought, can instead be accomplished by a much simpler process requiring no more than tweaks to already existing genes and developmental plans. Stranger still, researchers are finding that the genes that can be tweaked to create new shapes and body parts are surprisingly few.

More here.