Character trees from transcriptome data: origin and individuation of morphological characters and the so-called “species signal”
Jacob Musser, Gunter Wagner
We elaborate a framework for investigating the evolutionary history of morphological characters. We argue that morphological character trees generated from transcriptomes provide a useful tool for identifying causal gene expression differences underlying the development and evolution of morphological characters. They also enable rigorous testing of different models of morphological character evolution and origination, including the hypothesis that characters originate via divergence of repeated ancestral characters. Finally, morphological character trees provide evidence that character transcriptomes undergo concerted evolution. We argue that concerted evolution of transcriptomes can explain the so-called “species-specific clustering” found in several recent comparative transcriptome studies. The species signal is the phenomenon that transcriptomes cluster by species rather than character type, even though the characters are older than the respective species. We suggest that concerted gene expression evolution results from mutations that alter gene regulatory network interactions shared by the characters under comparison. Thus, character trees generated from transcriptomes allow us to investigate the variational independence, or individuation, of morphological characters at the level of genetic programs.