Small incremental biological change, winnowed by natural selection over geological time scales to produce large consequences, was Darwin's singular insight that revolutionized the life sciences. His publications after 1859, including the ‘earthworm book’, were all written to amplify and support the evolutionary theory presented in the Origin. Darwin was unable to provide a physical basis for the inheritance of favoured traits because of the absence of genetic knowledge that much later led to the ‘modern synthesis’. Mistaken though he was in advocating systemic ‘gemmules’ as agents of inheritance, Darwin was perceptive in seeking to underpin his core vision with concrete factors that both determine the nature of a trait in one generation and convey it to subsequent generations. This brief review evaluates the molecular genetic literature on earthworms published during the last decade, and casts light on the specific aspects of earthworm evolutionary biology that more or less engaged Darwin: (i) biogeography, (ii) species diversity, (iii) local adaptations and (iv) sensitivity. We predict that the current understanding will deepen with the announcement of a draft earthworm genome in Darwin's bicentenary year, 2009. Subsequently, the earthworm may be elevated from the status of a soil sentinel to that elusive entity, an ecologically relevant genetic model organism.
|Number of pages
|Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
|Published - 7 Mar 2009