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Jan 28, 2015 11:53 PM EST

Blind Beetles Show Extraordinary Signs of Sight

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A surprising discovery in the aquifers beneath the Western Australian desert challenges the traditional Darwinian view of evolution.
(Photo : University of Adelaide )

A surprising discovery in the aquifers beneath the Western Australian desert challenges the traditional Darwinian view of evolution.

Researchers at the University of Adelaide discovered that a species of blind predatory water beetles -- living underground for millions of years -- express vision genes (opsin) which are usually only found in species with eyes.

"Opsin proteins form visual pigments which turn photons of light into a signal that is sent to the brain. We expect to find opsin in beetles living above ground but to find them in those living in the dark is extraordinary," Dr. Simon Tierney, lead author of the study and a Postdoctoral Researcher from the University of Adelaide's School of Biological Science, said in a statement. "The presence of these gene products is unusual, not only because there is no light to activate the signaling pathways (biochemical cascades) underground, but because these beetles are also eyeless."

According to Tierney, the genetic mechanisms that lead to the reduction of traits over time (regressive evolution) has intrigued biologists for hundreds of years because traditional Darwinian views of evolution as an adaptive process may not necessarily apply.

"Evolution is often perceived as a 'directional' or 'adaptive' process but this is not always the case. These beetles have provided us with credible preliminary evidence for non-adaptive evolution," Tierney said."Non-adaptive evolution or Neutral Theory is when there is no selective pressure on a gene, resulting in an accumulation of random mutations in the gene sequence over time."

For the study, researchers used advanced molecular biology techniques (next-generation sequencing) to compare three subterranean beetle species with two closely related surface dwelling species. Opsin gene products were found in all surface species and in one of the three subterranean beetle species studied.

"Our results broadly conform to non-adaptive evolutionary theory and the discovery of a functional opsin in one underground species may indicate either a secondary role for opsin, known as pleiotropy, or the amount of time spent underground," Tierney said.

To date, there are approximately 100 known subterranean beetle species living in isolated underground caves.

Tierney said he believes these beetles will provide one of the most informative systems for biologists to explore the mechanisms responsible for regressive evolution because multiple comparisons can be made between species, which will produce a high sample size for statistical assessment.

"Our study has made a significant contribution in understanding how regressive evolution may operate under a non-adaptive evolutionary process," he added.

The findings are detailed in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

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