Neutral evolution of cellular phenotypes

Jeremy G. Wideman, Aaron Novick, Sergio A. Muñoz-Gómez, W. Ford Doolittle

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Eukaryotes exhibit a great diversity of cellular and subcellular morphologies, but their basic underlying architecture is fairly constant. All have a nucleus, Golgi, cytoskeleton, plasma membrane, vesicles, ribosomes, and all known lineages but one have mitochondrion-related organelles. Moreover, most eukaryotes undergo processes such as mitosis, meiosis, DNA recombination, and often perform feats such as phagocytosis, and amoeboid and flagellar movement. With all of these commonalities, it is obvious that eukaryotes evolved from a common ancestor, but it is not obvious how eukaryotes came to have their diverse structural phenotypes. Are these phenotypes adaptations to particular niches, their evolution dominated by positive natural selection? Or is eukaryotic cellular diversity substantially the product of neutral evolutionary processes, with adaptation either illusory or a secondary consequence? In this paper, we outline how a hierarchical view of phenotype can be used to articulate a neutral theory of phenotypic evolution, involving processes such as gene loss, gene replacement by homologues or analogues, gene duplication followed by subfunctionalization, and constructive neutral evolution. We suggest that neutral iterations of these processes followed by entrenchment of their products can explain much of the diversity of cellular, developmental, and biochemical phenotypes of unicellular eukaryotes and should be explored in addition to adaptive explanations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)87-94
Number of pages8
JournalCurrent Opinion in Genetics and Development
StatePublished - Oct 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics
  • Developmental Biology


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