Charles Darwin believed that all traits of organisms have been honed to near perfection by natural selection. The empirical basis underlying Darwin s conclusions consisted of numerous observations made by him and other naturalists on the exquisite adaptations of animals and plants to their natural habitats and on the impressive results of artificial selection. Darwin fully appreciated the importance of heredity but was unaware of the nature and, in fact, the very existence of genomes. A century and a half after the publication of the Origin, we have the opportunity to draw conclusions from the comparisons of hundreds of genome sequences from all walks of life. These comparisons suggest that the dominant mode of genome evolution is quite different from that of the phenotypic evolution. The genomes of vertebrates, those purported paragons of biological perfection, turned out to be veritable junkyards of selfish genetic elements where only a small fraction of the genetic material is dedicated to encoding biologically relevant information. In sharp contrast, genomes of microbes and viruses are incomparably more compact, with most of the genetic material assigned to distinct biological functions. However, even in these genomes, the specific genome organization (gene order) is poorly conserved. The results of comparative genomics lead to the conclusion that the genome architecture is not a straightforward result of continuous adaptation but rather is determined by the balance between the selection pressure, that is itself dependent on the effective population size and mutation rate, the level of recombination, and the activity of selfish elements. Although genes and, in many cases, multigene
regions of genomes possess elaborate architectures that ensure regulation of expression, these arrangements are evolutionarily volatile and typically change substantially even on short evolutionary scales when gene sequences diverge minimally. Thus, the observed genome archtiectures are, mostly, products of neutral processes or epiphenomena of more general selective processes, such as selection for genome streamlining in successful lineages with large populations. Selection for specific gene arrangements (elements of genome architecture) seems only to modulate the results of these processes.
Comparative genomics and systems biology offer unprecedented opportunities for testing central tenets of evolutionary biology formulated by Darwin in the Origin of Species in 1859 and expanded in the Modern Synthesis 100 years later. Evolutionary-genomic studies show that natural selection is only one of the forces that shape genome evolution and is not quantitatively dominant, whereas non-adaptive processes are much more prominent than previously suspected. Major contributions of horizontal gene transfer and diverse selfish genetic elements to genome evolution undermine the Tree of Life concept. An adequate depiction of evolution requires the more
complex concept of a network or forest of life. There is no consistent tendency of evolution towards increased genomic complexity, and when complexity increases, this appears to be a nonadaptive consequence of evolution under weak purifying selection rather than an adaptation. Several universals of genome evolution were discovered
including the invariant distributions of evolutionary rates among orthologous genes from diverse genomes and of paralogous gene family sizes, and the negative correlation between gene expression level
and sequence evolution rate. Simple, non-adaptive models of evolution explain some of these universals, suggesting that a new synthesis of evolutionary biology might become feasible in a not so