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Science 311 (5762): 796-800

Copyright © 2006 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science

Gene Regulatory Networks and the Evolution of Animal Body Plans

Eric H. Davidson1*, and Douglas H. Erwin2

Abstract: Development of the animal body plan is controlled by large gene regulatory networks (GRNs), and hence evolution of body plans must depend upon change in the architecture of developmental GRNs. However, these networks are composed of diverse components that evolve at different rates and in different ways. Because of the hierarchical organization of developmental GRNs, some kinds of change affect terminal properties of the body plan such as occur in speciation, whereas others affect major aspects of body plan morphology. A notable feature of the paleontological record of animal evolution is the establishment by the Early "Cambrian of virtually all phylum-level body plans. We identify a class of GRN component, the kernels" of the network, which, because of their developmental role and their particular internal structure, are most impervious to change. Conservation of phyletic body plans may have been due to the retention since pre-Cambrian time of GRN kernels, which underlie development of major body parts.

1 Division of Biology 156-29, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 91125, USA.
2 Department of Paleobiology, MRC-121, National Museum of Natural History, Post Office Box 37012, Washington, DC 20013–7012, and Santa Fe Institute, 1399 Hyde Park Road, Santa Fe, NM 87501, USA.

* To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: davidson{at}

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