Edna K. Papazian Distinguished Service Professor, Department of Ecology & Evolution
Senior Fellow, Institute for Genomics and Systems Biology
Office: Zoology 301E
Phone: (773) 702-0557
Fax: (773) 702-9740
An interesting problem in evolutionary biology is how genes with novel functions originate. My research focuses on this problem, although I am also interested in other issues of molecular evolution. Interest in evolutionary novelties can be traced back to the time of Darwin. However, studies of the origin and evolution of genes with new functions have only recently become possible and attracted increasing attention. Although conceptual revolution is always what we wish to pursue, the available molecular techniques and rapidly expanded genome data from many organisms mean that searching for and characterizing new genes is no longer a formidable technical obstacle. Molecular and evolutionary studies have provided powerful analytical tools for the detection of the processes and mechanisms that underlie the origin of new genes.
Three levels of questions about this process can be defined. First, at the level of individual new genes, what are the initial molecular mechanisms that generate new gene structures? Once a new gene arises in an individual genome in a natural population, how does it spread throughout an entire species to become fixed? And, how does the young gene subsequently evolve? Second, at the level of the genome, how often do new genes originate? If new gene formation is not a rare event, are there any patterns that underlie the process? And, what evolutionary and genetic mechanisms govern any such patterns? Third, what are functions and phenotypic effects of new genes? How are the detected patterns impacting the phenotypic evolution, e.g. e.g. the environmental adaptation and evolution of development?
I believe that an efficient approach to these questions is to examine young genes because their early processes of origination are directly observable. Pursuit of these problems requires an integrated approach incorporating molecular, genomic and population analyses. My lab applies such an approach to our studies. Using experimental and computational genomic analysis, we identified numerous new genes in Drosophila and mammalian genomes. Using molecular analysis, we revealed some important molecular evolutionary mechanisms responsible for their current gene structures. By evolutionary genetic analysis, we observed a significant role of the adaptive evolution in the determination of the fate of those new genes. Interesting patterns are observed associated with these new genes.
I see questions there, challenges there, joys there.