Prior to this study, scientists have relied on more theoretical approaches such as bioinformatics to infer how new genes arise. Now they have demonstrated the evolution of a new gene experimentally. The team published their results on October 19.
The model explains how novelty is generated in evolution, which is "tremendously exciting," says Gavin Conant, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Missouri—Columbia who was not involved in the study. Whether the model will apply to organisms other than bacteria remains to be seen, but Conant says he would be very surprised if researchers do not eventually find the process in other systems. "They have a step-by-step documentation of the model, essentially proof that this can happen," he says.
Conant points out that we cannot hope to stay 40 years ahead of microbes when they can evolve new abilities in just a few years. But microbes aren't always working against us. If the model holds, it can give researchers insight to harnessing evolution's power—as bioengineers coax microbes to gobble oil spills, for example. Says Conant of the genome’s innovative abilities: "It reminds us again of just how powerful evolution is in microbes."