July 26th, 2013
There have been revolutionary advances in our knowledge of genetics in the past 30 years. This is particularly true in a field of endeavor called developmental genetics, which strives to understand how genes work to put us together. To make a baby that grows and eventually makes its own babies.
We have found that genes which coordinate development in the fruit fly are similar in structure, function, expression, and genomic organization to genes in human beings (i.e., how they are arranged on chromosomes, what regulates them and how they interact with each other). Yet fruit flies are not like us: among other obvious differences they have wings and we don’t (even if we wish we did!).
The formation of wings or legs or a segmented abdomen or hundreds of other steps are all part of a genetically specified developmental program leading to a body plan, a process which is called pattern formation. The revolution in part is the understanding of the degree of conservation of the genes responsible across huge phylogenetic chasms. In other words the degree to which the genes are the same even though we evolved into different animals almost a hundred million years ago.