This post originally appeared on Sciblogs.co.nz.

We share about 70 per cent of our genes with fruit flies. Those 70 per cent are old, ancient genes, that were present in the common ancestor of flies and humans. We share many, many genes with most animals, and these conserved genes are thought to be the ones controlling all those really important processes necessary for life. What about the other 30 per cent though? Are they necessary for life? Could we live without them?

An article published in

Science

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at the end of last year explores that very question - are newly evolved genes essential or dispensable?

New genes are often thought of as performing relatively minor functions. It makes sense, really - the ancient genes that we all share, that all animals share, must be the really important ones that we can't do without, like the engine in your car; while the newly-evolved ones might just be for more superficial purposes, like the colour of your paintwork, or those fluffy dice you hang from the rear-view mirror.

examined the dispensability of newly evolved genes in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. By comparing the genome of D. melanogaster with those of other closely related fruit flies, they identified a bunch of newly evolved genes. They then knocked down the functions of these genes one by one, and observed the effect these knockdowns had on the flies, and whether they survived and were normal.

The somewhat surprising result was that a whopping 30 per cent of newly evolved genes were essential for the flies' viability. What do I mean by viability?

If the genes were knocked out, the flies died.

How does this compare to 'old' genes? The researchers performed the same experiment using ancient genes, and found that 35 per cent were essential. That's not much more than 30 per cent, suggesting that new genes are just as important as old genes for survival!

How can a newly evolved gene become essential for life? Well, most 'new' genes aren't that new at all, they arise from gene duplication events, where a gene is copied and then the two separate copies go on to evolve independently. A duplicated gene can very quickly evolve a new function by gathering a bunch of mutations, especially when the animal population is large. If the 'parent' gene is lost, the 'new' gene could also become essential that way, because it is now solely responsible for performing the function that the original gene was.

Pretty interesting results so far! The next thing the scientists looked at was the actual functions of new genes: why where those new genes essential for survival?

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Before I go on I will quickly outline the fruit fly life cycle. Fruit flies have a few different developmental stages before they become adults. First, they are small

embryos

, which then grow into

larvae

(think tiny maggots!) and eat as much food as they can, before

pupating

so that they can morph, and then hatch as an adult (similar to how butterflies morph from caterpillars to butterflies).

The researchers examined where and when essential genes were being used during fruit fly development, and found that most (80 per cent) of the newly evolved essential genes were necessary for

larval development and pupation

, while a few (10 per cent) were turned on earlier on during

embryonic development.

By comparison, only about 50 per cent of old genes are needed for

pupation

, while 44 per cent are needed for earlier

embryonic development.

So the scientists found that newer genes are often essential for larval and pupal development- ie, later stages of development; whereas old genes are more often essential for early embryonic development.

Perhaps this reflects a need to keep the genetic control in

early

development as tightly regulated as possible, with little room for change, while

later

stages of development are more flexible and can allow new genes to become incorporated into developmental processes.

Reference: Chen, S., Zhang, Y., & Long, M. (2010). New Genes in Drosophila Quickly Become Essential Science, 330 (6011), 1682-1685 DOI: 10.1126/science.1196380<

Tamsin Jones is a genetics technician and asistant research fellow, at the University of Otago. View her work and that of 35 other scientists and science writers at Sciblogs, New Zealand's largest science blogging network.