New research from an international team of evolutionary biologists, led by the University of Oxford, has used bacteria to show that acquiring duplicate copies of genes can provide a ‘template’ allowing organisms to develop new attributes from redundant copies of existing genes. The researchers allowed 380 populations of Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria to evolve novel metabolic traits such as the ability to degrade new sugars. This gave the researchers the opportunity to witness evolution happening in real-time. After 30 days of evolution, they sequenced the genomes of bacteria that had evolved novel metabolic traits. They found that mutations mainly affected genes involved in transcription and metabolism, and that novelty tended to evolve through mutations in pre-existing duplicated genes in the P. aeruginosa genome.
‘These findings provide important empirical evidence to support the role of gene duplication in evolutionary innovation, and they suggest that it may be possible to predict the ability of pathogenic bacteria to evolve clinically important traits, such as virulence and antibiotic resistance.’