The life and death of gene families



One of the unique insights provided by the growing number of fully sequenced genomes is the pervasiveness of gene duplication and gene loss. Indeed, several metrics now suggest that rates of gene birth and death per gene are only 10–40% lower than nucleotide substitutions per site, and that per nucleotide, the consequent lineage-specific expansion and contraction of gene families may play at least as large a role in adaptation as changes in orthologous sequences. While gene family evolution is pervasive, it may be especially important in our own evolution since it appears that the “revolving door” of gene duplication and loss has undergone multiple accelerations in the lineage leading to humans. In this paper, we review current understanding of gene family evolution including: methods for inferring copy number change, evidence for adaptive expansion and adaptive contraction of gene families, the origins of new families and deaths of previously established ones, and finally we conclude with a perspective on challenges and promising directions for future research.