Irish-led study suggests evolution may be predictable

8 Jan 2024

Image: © pixtumz88/

The researchers said this discovery could help scientists explore which genes could be useful to tackle issues such as antibiotic resistance, diseases and the climate crisis.

A new study from the University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University is challenging conventional views around evolution.

The team’s results go against the belief that evolution is inherently unpredictable – a view that has been supported and criticised by various studies over the years. The new research suggests that the evolutionary trajectory of a genome may be influenced by its evolutionary history, rather than determined by numerous factors and historical accidents.

Prof James McInerney, the Irish researcher who led the study, said the results are “nothing short of revolutionary”.

“By demonstrating that evolution is not as random as we once thought, we’ve opened the door to an array of possibilities in synthetic biology, medicine and environmental science.”

The study analysed the pangenome – the complete set of genes within a given species – to assess if evolution is predictable. The team used a dataset of 2,500 complete genomes from a single bacterial species and used a machine learning approach called random forest, which is used for classification and regression tasks.

The team was able to make ‘gene families’ to make comparisons across the genomes and analysed how these families were present in some genomes and absent in others. The team found that some gene families never turned up in a genome where a particular other gene family was present.

This suggests there is an invisible ecosystem in these genomes, where genes can cooperate or can be in conflict with one another.

The researchers said the discovery could help scientists to design synthetic genomes and provide a roadmap for the predictable manipulation of genetic material. The study’s results could also contribute to the design of microorganisms that can capture carbon or degrade pollutants, in order to tackle the climate crisis.

A study from Trinity College Dublin in 2022 suggests modern humans continued to evolve since we split from our primate ancestors nearly 7m years ago.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic