, Volume 86, Issue 1-3, pp 99-111

Natural genetic engineering in evolution

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Abstract

The results of molecular genetics have frequently been difficult to explain by conventional evolutionary theory. New findings about the genetic conservation of protein structure and function across very broad taxonomic boundaries, the mosaic structure of genomes and genetic loci, and the molecular mechanisms of genetic change all point to a view of evolution as involving the rearrangement of basic genetic motifs. A more detailed examination of how living cells restructure their genomes reveals a wide variety of sophisticated biochemical systems responsive to elaborate regulatory networks. In some cases, we know that cells are able to accomplish extensive genome reorganization within one or a few cell generations. The emergence of bacterial antibiotic resistance is a contemporary example of evolutionary change; molecular analysis of this phenomenon has shown that it occurs by the addition and rearrangement of resistance determinants and genetic mobility systems rather than by gradual modification of pre-existing cellular genomes. In addition, bacteria and other organisms have intricate repair systems to prevent genetic change by sporadic physicochemical damage or errors of the replication machinery. In their ensemble, these results show that living cells have (and use) the biochemical apparatus to evolve by a genetic engineering process. Future research will reveal how well the regulatory systems integrate genomic change into basic life processes during evolution.