Classical molecular DevoEvo originated, among other reasons, from the discovery of highly conserved developmental genes in distantly related organisms (Carroll et al., 2010). This was an important discovery, not the least because it allowed comparative developmental studies in non-model organisms and meaningful comparisons among species with little if any body plan similarities. Hence, the revolution of developmental genetics triggered a revolution in evolutionary biology leading to a bridge between long separated cousins, evolutionary and developmental biology. Now, we are faced with the fallout of another revolution in molecular biology, the simultaneous advent of next gen sequencing, synthetic and systems biology. It is already clear that the impact on the study of evolution of these advances will be as fundamental as the discovery of the homeobox was 30 years ago. This is what we call here “Next Gen Devo Evo,” a new phase of evolutionary discovery driven by the technological advances sweeping through present day biology creating new conceptual challenges for understanding the complexity of organismal evolution.
When Frank Ruddle created the Molecular and Developmental Evolution section of the Journal of Experimental Zoology in 1999, the idea was to provide a platform for the publication of the then new field of evolutionary developmental biology. Now that we can see the coming of a new phase of mechanistically based evolutionary biology, it was decided to change the face and the editorial team of the journal to meet the anticipated change in the character of our science. With this issue the journal introduces a new team of associate editors with expertise reflecting the profile of Next Gen Devo Evo. Beside the core areas of DevoEvo, comparative vertebrate development (Kuratani, RIKEN Japan, Milinkovitch, University of Geneva), insect (Abouheif, McGill University), and other invertebrate developmental evolution (Wanninger, University of Vienna), as well as history and philosophy of biology (Brigandt, University of Alberta), we also now have editors who focus on computational systems biology (Teichmann, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK), synthetic biology (Peisajovich, University of Toronto), and bioinformatics/biophysics (Milinkovitch, University of Geneva).
In what way is and will Next Gen Devo Evo be different from what we already have? There are three major changes happening:
- It is now relatively easy to describe the complete transcriptome of a non-model organism including splice variants, and variations in transcriptional start sites, and to monitor gene regulatory states through the mapping of chromatin modification marks. Evolutionary studies of the whole transcriptome and epi-genome will be soon the norm in the field. This will require new ways of analyzing and assessing this type of data in an evolutionary context.
- Deeper insights into the systems biology of gene regulation and development will encourage the study of gene regulatory network evolution and lead to a shift from studies of single genes or small networks to the study of systems level evolutionary change. This will necessitate the integration of mathematical modeling, experimental molecular biology, and genomic resources to create a comprehensive and systems level understanding of organismal evolution.
- Finally and perhaps most consequential for the field as a whole, the methods of synthetic biology will enable more rigorous evidential standards in evolutionary biology. Up until very recently, inferences about the evolutionary past, based on the comparative method, did not face independent experimental testing. With the capabilities developed in synthetic biology it will be possible to physically realize inferred ancestral gene regulatory networks or signaling networks and thus we will be able to experimentally analyze the dynamic and functional properties of ancestral gene regulatory networks. In the area of protein evolution, the synthesis and experimental analysis of ancestral proteins is (slowly) becoming the standard (e.g., Dean and Thornton, 2007; Lynch et al., 2008; Bridgham et al., 2009). In the near future, we will be able to do the same with signaling cascades and complete gene regulatory networks (Peisajovich et al., 2010, 2006). A synthetic evolutionary biology will be an important milestone in the mechanistic grounding of evolutionary biology (Erwin and Davidson, 2009).
Journal of Experimental Zoology Part B: Molecular and Developmental Evolution is dedicating its resources to foster and enhance a rigorous, mechanistic, and synthetic evolutionary biology, that is, to foster Next Gen Devo Evo.