Studying Gene Flow

Scientists from many disciplines are currently studying migration and gene flow in a variety of ways. For decades, ornithologists and marine biologists have been placing identifying tags or markers on members of different species of birds, fishes, and marine mammals to determine the range of their migratory habits in order to understand the role of migration and subsequent gene flow in the biology of their subjects. These studies have led, and will continue to lead, to important discoveries. Most studies of migration and gene flow, however, relate to human beings.

Many of the important discoveries concerning the role of gene flow in the evolution of life come from the continuing study of the nature of genes.

A gene, in cooperation with such molecules as transfer ribonucleic acid (tRNA) and related enzymes, controls the nature of an organism by specifying amino acid sequences in specific functional proteins. In recent decades, scientists have discovered that what they previously believed to be single pure enzymes are actually groups of closely related enzymes, which they have named "isoenzymes" or "isozymes." Current theory holds that isozymes can serve the needs of a cell or of an entire organism more efficiently and over a wider range of environmental extremes than can a single enzyme. Biologists theorize that isozymes developed through gene flow between populations from climatic extremes and enhance the possibility of adaptation among members of the species when the occasion arises. The combination and recombination of isozymes passed from parent to offspring are apparently determined by deoxyribo-nucleic acid (DNA). Investigation into the role of DNA in evolution is one of the most promising avenues to an understanding of the nature of life.

A classic example of the importance of understanding migration and gene flow in the animal kingdom is the spread of the so-called killer bees. In the 1950's, a species of ill-tempered African bee was accidentally released in South America. The African bees mated with the more docile wild bees in the area; through migration and gene flow, they transmitted their violent propensity to attack anything approaching their nests. As the African genes slowly migrated northward, they proved to be dominant.

Further research into migration and gene flow promises to provide information indispensable to the attempt to unravel the mysteries of life. Coupled with the concept of mutation, gene flow is a crucial component of evolution.

—Paul Madden

See also: Adaptive radiation; Demographics; Ecological niches; Ecology; Evolution: Animal life; Evolution: Historical perspective; Genetics; Habitats and biomes; Hardy-Weinberg law of genetic equilibrium; Natural selection; Population analysis; Population genetics; Punctuated equilibrium and continuous evolution.

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