In biology, evolution is the change in heritable characteristics of biological populations over successive generations. These characteristics are the expressions of genes, which are passed on from parent to offspring during reproduction. Variation tends to exist within any given population as a result of genetic mutation and recombination. Evolution occurs when evolutionary processes such as natural selection (including sexual selection) and genetic drift act on this variation, resulting in certain characteristics becoming more common or more rare within a population. The evolutionary pressures that determine whether a characteristic is common or rare within a population constantly change, resulting in a change in heritable characteristics arising over successive generations. It is this process of evolution that has given rise to biodiversity at every level of biological organisation.
The theory of evolution by natural selection was conceived independently by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in the mid-19th century and was set out in detail in Darwin's book On the Origin of Species. Evolution by natural selection is established by observable facts about living organisms: (1) more offspring are often produced than can possibly survive; (2) traits vary among individuals with respect to their morphology, physiology, and behaviour (phenotypic variation); (3) different traits confer different rates of survival and reproduction (differential fitness); and (4) traits can be passed from generation to generation (heritability of fitness). In successive generations, members of a population are therefore more likely to be replaced by the offspring of parents with favourable characteristics. In the early 20th century, other competing ideas of evolution such as mutationism and orthogenesis were refuted as the modern synthesis concluded Darwinian evolution acts on Mendelian genetic variation.
Evolutionary biologists have continued to study various aspects of evolution by forming and testing hypotheses as well as constructing theories based on evidence from the field or laboratory and on data generated by the methods of mathematical and theoretical biology. Their discoveries have influenced not just the development of biology but numerous other scientific and industrial fields, including agriculture, medicine, and computer science.
Some heritable changes cannot be explained by changes to the sequence of nucleotides in the DNA. These phenomena are classed as epigenetic inheritance systems. DNA methylation marking chromatin, self-sustaining metabolic loops, gene silencing by RNA interference and the three-dimensional conformation of proteins (such as prions) are areas where epigenetic inheritance systems have been discovered at the organismic level. Developmental biologists suggest that complex interactions in genetic networks and communication among cells can lead to heritable variations that may underlay some of the mechanics in developmental plasticity and canalisation. Heritability may also occur at even larger scales. For example, ecological inheritance through the process of niche construction is defined by the regular and repeated activities of organisms in their environment. This generates a legacy of effects that modify and feed back into the selection regime of subsequent generations. Descendants inherit genes plus environmental characteristics generated by the ecological actions of ancestors. Other examples of heritability in evolution that are not under the direct control of genes include the inheritance of cultural traits and symbiogenesis.
In asexual organisms, genes are inherited together, or linked, as they cannot mix with genes of other organisms during reproduction. In contrast, the offspring of sexual organisms contain random mixtures of their parents' chromosomes that are produced through independent assortment. In a related process called homologous recombination, sexual organisms exchange DNA between two matching chromosomes. Recombination and reassortment do not alter allele frequencies, but instead change which alleles are associated with each other, producing offspring with new combinations of alleles. Sex usually increases genetic variation and may increase the rate of evolution.
The two-fold cost of sex was first described by John Maynard Smith. The first cost is that in sexually dimorphic species only one of the two sexes can bear young. This cost does not apply to hermaphroditic species, like most plants and many invertebrates. The second cost is that any individual who reproduces sexually can only pass on 50% of its genes to any individual offspring, with even less passed on as each new generation passes. Yet sexual reproduction is the more common means of reproduction among eukaryotes and multicellular organisms. The Red Queen hypothesis has been used to explain the significance of sexual reproduction as a means to enable continual evolution and adaptation in response to coevolution with other species in an ever-changing environment. Another hypothesis is that sexual reproduction is primarily an adaptation for promoting accurate recombinational repair of damage in germline DNA, and that increased diversity is a byproduct of this process that may sometimes be adaptively beneficial.
From a neo-Darwinian perspective, evolution occurs when there are changes in the frequencies of alleles within a population of interbreeding organisms, for example, the allele for black colour in a population of moths becoming more common. Mechanisms that can lead to changes in allele frequencies include natural selection, genetic drift, gene flow and mutation bias.
The central concept of natural selection is the evolutionary fitness of an organism. Fitness is measured by an organism's ability to survive and reproduce, which determines the size of its genetic contribution to the next generation. However, fitness is not the same as the total number of offspring: instead fitness is indicated by the proportion of subsequent generations that carry an organism's genes. For example, if an organism could survive well and reproduce rapidly, but its offspring were all too small and weak to survive, this organism would make little genetic contribution to future generations and would thus have low fitness.
Natural selection can act at different levels of organisation, such as genes, cells, individual organisms, groups of organisms and species. Selection can act at multiple levels simultaneously. An example of selection occurring below the level of the individual organism are genes called transposons, which can replicate and spread throughout a genome. Selection at a level above the individual, such as group selection, may allow the evolution of cooperation.
According to the now largely abandoned neutral theory of molecular evolution most evolutionary changes are the result of the fixation of neutral mutations by genetic drift. In this model, most genetic changes in a population are thus the result of constant mutation pressure and genetic drift. This form of the neutral theory is now largely abandoned since it does not seem to fit the genetic variation seen in nature. A better-supported version of this model is the nearly neutral theory, according to which a mutation that would be effectively neutral in a small population is not necessarily neutral in a large population. Other theories propose that genetic drift is dwarfed by other stochastic forces in evolution, such as genetic hitchhiking, also known as genetic draft. Another concept is constructive neutral evolution (CNE), which explains that complex systems can emerge and spread into a population through neutral transitions due to the principles of excess capacity, presuppression, and ratcheting, and it has been applied in areas ranging from the origins of the spliceosome to the complex interdependence of microbial communities.
It is usually difficult to measure the relative importance of selection and neutral processes, including drift. The comparative importance of adaptive and non-adaptive forces in driving evolutionary change is an area of current research.
Gene flow involves the exchange of genes between populations and between species. The presence or absence of gene flow fundamentally changes the course of evolution. Due to the complexity of organisms, any two completely isolated populations will eventually evolve genetic incompatibilities through neutral processes, as in the Bateson-Dobzhansky-Muller model, even if both populations remain essentially identical in terms of their adaptation to the environment.
During the development of the modern synthesis, Sewall Wright developed his shifting balance theory, which regarded gene flow between partially isolated populations as an important aspect of adaptive evolution. However, recently there has been substantial criticism of the importance of the shifting balance theory.
Mutation bias is usually conceived as a difference in expected rates for two different kinds of mutation, e.g., transition-transversion bias, GC-AT bias, deletion-insertion bias. This is related to the idea of developmental bias. Haldane and Fisher argued that, because mutation is a weak pressure easily overcome by selection, tendencies of mutation would be ineffectual except under conditions of neutral evolution or extraordinarily high mutation rates. This opposing-pressures argument was long used to dismiss the possibility of internal tendencies in evolution, until the molecular era prompted renewed interest in neutral evolution.
Noboru Sueoka and Ernst Freese proposed that systematic biases in mutation might be responsible for systematic differences in genomic GC composition between species. The identification of a GC-biased E. coli mutator strain in 1967, along with the proposal of the neutral theory, established the plausibility of mutational explanations for molecular patterns, which are now common in the molecular evolution literature. 041b061a72