Clade-specific genes and the evolutionary origin of novelty; new tools in the toolkit

Longjun Wu, J. David Lambert

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Clade-specific (a.k.a. lineage-specific) genes are very common and found at all taxonomic levels and in all clades examined. They can arise by duplication of previously existing genes, which can involve partial truncations or combinations with other protein domains or regulatory sequences. They can also evolve de novo from non-coding sequences, leading to potentially truly novel protein domains. Finally, since clade-specific genes are generally defined by lack of sequence homology with other proteins, they can also arise by sequence evolution that is rapid enough that previous sequence homology can no longer be detected. In such cases, where the rapid evolution is followed by constraint, we consider them to be ontologically non-novel but likely novel at a functional level. In general, clade-specific genes have received less attention from biologists but there are increasing numbers of fascinating examples of their roles in important traits. Here we review some selected recent examples, and argue that attention to clade-specific genes is an important corrective to the focus on the conserved developmental regulatory toolkit that has been the habit of evo-devo as a field. Finally, we discuss questions that arise about the evolution of clade-specific genes, and how these might be addressed by future studies. We highlight the hypothesis that clade-specific genes are more likely to be involved in synapomorphies that arose in the stem group where they appeared, compared to other genes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)52-59
Number of pages8
JournalSeminars in Cell and Developmental Biology
StatePublished - Aug 2023


  • Lineage-specific genes
  • Novelty
  • Taxon restricted genes
  • Taxonomically restricted genes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental Biology
  • Cell Biology


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