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When you’ve invented a jaw-stretching phrase like evolutionary developmental biology, shortening it again seems a neat idea. So the term evo-devo was born, sometime around the middle 1990s, though it is only gradually beginning to appear outside a narrow specialist arena.

In essence, it’s a marriage of the approaches of two groups of scientists — those who study how the genetic make-up of organisms has evolved between species over millions of years, and those who investigate the way that genes control the growth of individual living organisms from conception to maturity.

Researchers have found that genes are extraordinarily stable, even between species that evolved millions of years apart. Some genetic markers and chemical structures have survived fundamental changes in the physical appearance of species. The most famous is the hox gene sequence that controls the way the body develops — in essence, this was much the same in lowly organisms 700 million years ago as it is in humans today.

Studying these genes from both points of view — both evolution and development — helps researchers to understand how organisms today develop from egg to mature adult, and provides insights into the genetics of organisms like the dinosaurs that are known only from fossils. The fusion of the two approaches is predicted to result in many important discoveries.

Page created 19 Jan. 2002

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World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 19 January 2002.