Wednesday, March 22, 2006


From symmetry to asymmetry: Phylogenetic patterns of asymmetry variation

[A. Richard Palmer, PNAS, Dec '96]

From symmetry to asymmetry: Phylogenetic patterns of asymmetry variation in animals and their evolutionary significance


Phylogenetic analyses of asymmetry variation offer a powerful tool for exploring the interplay between ontogeny and evolution because (i) conspicuous asymmetries exist in many higher metazoans with widely varying modes of development, (ii) patterns of bilateral variation within species may identify genetically and environmentally triggered asymmetries, and (iii) asymmetries arising at different times during development may be more sensitive to internal cytoplasmic inhomogeneities compared to external environmental stimuli. Using four broadly comparable asymmetry states (symmetry, antisymmetry, dextral, and sinistral), and two stages at which asymmetry appears developmentally (larval and postlarval), I evaluated relations between ontogenetic and phylogenetic patterns of asymmetry variation. Among 140 inferred phylogenetic transitions between asymmetry states, recorded from 11 classes in five phyla, directional asymmetry (dextral or sinistral) evolved directly from symmetrical ancestors proportionally more frequently among larval asymmetries. In contrast, antisymmetry, either as an end state or as a transitional stage preceding directional asymmetry, was confined primarily to postlarval asymmetries. The ontogenetic origin of asymmetry thus significantly influences its subsequent evolution. Furthermore, because antisymmetry typically signals an environmentally triggered asymmetry, the phylogenetic transition from antisymmetry to directional asymmetry suggests that many cases of laterally fixed asymmetries evolved via genetic assimilation.

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