Darwin called it “that mystery of mysteries”, or how organisms evolve to become new species. 

New University of Queensland research is using a mathematical model to unlock secrets of recombination – the shuffling of genes during sexual reproduction – on the origin of new species.

Dr Jan Engelstädter of the School of Biological Sciences said recombination had two opposing effects in evolution.

“On the one hand, by mixing genetic material from different populations, recombination can thwart the formation of new species,” he said.

“On the other hand, recombination can make it easier for populations to adapt to new environments, a process that can also drive species formation.”

School of Biological researchers James Reeve, Associate Professor Daniel Ortiz-Barrientos and Dr Engelstädter developed the model to tease these effects apart and to investigate how recombination evolves through time during the early stages of speciation.

“Our results indicate that when different populations adapt to contrasting environments, initially higher rates of gene shuffling evolve,” Dr Engelstädter said.

“Later on, gene shuffling is suppressed so that the populations remain distinct and well adapted to their environments.

“Our study makes predictions that can be tested in natural populations that are in the process of species formation.”

Study co-author Associate Professor Ortiz-Barrientos said the model emphasised that theories for the origin of recombination (sex) had enormous potential to improve understanding of the origin of new species.

The research, which was supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery grant, is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Media: Jan Engelstaedter j.engelstaedter@uq.edu.au, +61 7 3365 7959.

Captions:  Senecio pinnatifolius.  Photos: Daniel Ortiz-Barrientos.

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