When we look at the face of another person, we can recognize specific features that have familial resemblances. In my family, for instance, I can recognize a "Myers nose" that my grandmother and my father and some of my siblings and kids have, and it's different than my wife's or my mother's nose. These are subtle differences in shape—a bit of a curve, a knob, a seam—and their inheritance suggests that these differences are specified somehow in the DNA. If you think about it, though…how can whether the profile of a nose is straight or curved be encoded in a linear stretch of nucleotides? The complicated answer is that it isn't—morphology is a consequence of epigenetic interactions during development—but we know that the alleles present in the genome do contribute in some significant way to three-dimensional form. How?
We don't know all the details. This is one of those huge research problems that has gaping holes, full of promise and interest, where we don't understand exactly how all the pieces fit together. However, here's an important point that is relevant to other, larger issues in evolution: even where we lack full information about mechanisms, we can roughly perceive the shape of the answer, and that helps us rule out many alternative explanations and guides us in the general direction of a more complete understanding.
People's noses are a difficult subject for research; we don't get to define human crosses, people tend to be a little snippy about telling them who to breed with and taking their genes apart, and humans are awfully slow to breed. Fish are better experimental animals, much more pliable and faster and more prolific in their breeding. Some fish, such as the African cichlids, also have highly diverse populations and species with easily recognized and often quite dramatic morphological differences—and we can explore how those differences are generated by genetic and molecular differences in development. In particular, we can start to figure out how fish jaws are shaped by developmental processes.
Continue reading "Evolution of the cichlid mandible" (on Pharyngula)