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UC Riverside study suggests placentas can evolve in 750,000 years or less

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- Dec. 20, 2002 -- Evolutionary biologists have long been intrigued by how natural selection -- the process in nature by which the organisms best suited to their environment are the ones most likely to survive and leave descendants -- gradually creates a complex organ such as the eye, heart, or kidney.

Now UC Riverside biologists, David Reznick and Mark Springer, along with Mariana Mateos, research associate at the University of Arizona, present in the journal Science a model system for studying the evolution of complex organs. They focus on the placenta (the organ that provides nutrients for the fetus and eliminates its waste products) in the fish genus, arguing that placentas serve as a good stand-in for complex organs whose histories have eluded evolutionary biologists.

The dilemma posed by complex adaptation, which are organs of extreme complexity that have evolved through the action of natural selection, is that these organs demand contributions from a large number of adaptations at individual genetic loci to function properly. Darwin addressed the difficulty of complex adaptations with his treatment of the evolution of the eye. "He had to use organisms from different classes," explained Reznick, "because there isn't a living group of related organisms that have all the steps for making an eye." The organisms in Darwin's model are, however, distantly related to one another.

Darwin proposed that complex eyes could have been formed with a succession of photosensitive organs, each a bit more complex than its predecessor and each favored by natural selection because of the advantages that the possessor received. Visualizing such a process would be easiest if steps in this sequence were preserved in closely related living organisms; but no such sequence exists for eyes because the intermediate stages have been lost through extinction.

Reznick and his colleagues studied guppy-like fish in the genus Po
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Contact: Iqbal Pittalwala
iqbal@citrus.ucr.edu
909-787-5185
University of California - Riverside
20-Dec-2002


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