Genome reduction as the dominant mode of evolution

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A common belief is that evolution generally proceeds towards greater complexity at both the organismal and the genomic level, numerous examples of reductive evolution of parasites and symbionts notwithstanding. However, recent evolutionary reconstructions challenge this notion. Two notable examples are the reconstruction of the complex archaeal ancestor and the intron-rich ancestor of eukaryotes. In both cases, evolution in most of the lineages was apparently dominated by extensive loss of genes and introns, respectively. These and many other cases of reductive evolution are consistent with a general model composed of two distinct evolutionary phases: the short, explosive, innovation phase that leads to an abrupt increase in genome complexity, followed by a much longer reductive phase, which encompasses either a neutral ratchet of genetic material loss or adaptive genome streamlining. Quantitatively, the evolution of genomes appears to be dominated by reduction and simplification, punctuated by episodes of complexification.

We propose a general model of genome evolution that includes two distinct phases. A short phase of rapid innovation leads to increase in genome complexity. A much longer reductive phase results in genome simplification through loss of genetic material caused either by a quasi-neutral ratchet or by adaptive genome streamlining.

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