The paper, by Sidi Chen, Yong Zhang, and my friend Manyuan Long, appears in this week’s Science: “New genes in Drosophila quickly become essential.“ It’s a clever piece of work.
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The data of Chen et al., then, show that new genetic information can arise quickly, at least on an evolutionary timescale, and that the new genes rapidly assume new functions. (Note: I am using Behe’s characterization of “new genetic information” as involving only new FCTs. I don’t agree with this, since new genetic information can also arise when a single gene copy changes sufficiently to do something new.)
Although this doesn’t answer the question of what proportion of new evolutionary traits involve changes in gene sequence versus changes in gene regulation, it does show that a substantial part of the genome in one group of eukaryotes arises by the evolution of new FCTs that become involved in new developmental networks. In other words, Behe’s conclusion from short-term lab studies of bacteria and viruses doesn’t apply to this well-studied group of organisms—and probably not to other eukaryotes, either. All the evidence tells us that a rapid and important way to create new genetic information is through the duplication of genes and then their divergence by natural selection.
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I suppose Behe and his minions will find a way to explain these two patterns by intelligent design, but that’s because ID theory isn’t science: there is no conceivable observation that can prove it wrong. Every bit of data, no matter what it is, can always be fitted into the ID scheme, especially since its advocates allow a little bit of Darwinian evolution and posit an unpredictable and unknowable Designer. But let us not tarnish the nice results of Chen et al. by using them to cast aspersions on ID. They are a valuable contribution to the real science of evolutionary biology, showing how fast new genetic information can arise by gene duplication.