How to make a bat


or•gan•ic | ôr'ganik | adjective. denoting a relation between elements of something such that they fit together harmoniously as necessary parts of a whole; characterized by continuous or natural development.

One of the wonderful things about how development works is that organisms function as wholes, and changes in one property trivially induce concordant changes in other properties. Tug on one element, changing it's orientation or size, and during embryogenesis any adjacent elements make compensatory adjustments, so that the resultant form flows, fits, and looks organic. This isn't that surprising a feature of development, though, unless you have the mistaken idea that the genome encodes a blueprint of morphology. It doesn't; what it contains is a description of interacting agents that work together in a process to produce a complex result. Changes in genes and regulatory elements can essentially produce changes in rules of development, rather than crudely specifying blocks of morphology.

What does this mean for evolution? It means that subtle changes to the rules of development can be caused by small changes to genes (and especially, to regulatory regions of genes), and that the resulting morphological changes may be dramatic, but are still integrated organically into the form of the organism as a whole. Our understanding of how development works is making it clear that large scale macroevolutionary change may be much easier than we had thought.

Here's an example where this insight is clarifying the evolution of an organism: the fossil record of bats shows an abrupt appearance of fairly sophisticated creatures with elongated digits, clearly capable of gliding or powered flight, with no known intermediates. We expect there were less fully flight-ready predecessors, but fossil preservation is not kind to small, delicate boned animals. It's also possible that the transitional period was fairly brief; it looks like turning a paw into a long-fingered membranous wing may be a fairly simple change on a molecular level.

Continue reading "How to make a bat" (on Pharyngula)