Step-wise evolution of complex chemical defenses in millipedes: a phylogenomic approach
With fossil representatives from the Silurian capable of respiring atmospheric oxygen, millipedes are among the oldest terrestrial animals, and likely the first to acquire diverse and complex chemical defenses against predators. Exploring the origin of complex adaptive traits is critical for understanding the evolution of Earth's biological complexity, and chemical defense evolution serves as an ideal study system. The classic explanation for the evolution of complexity is by gradual increase from simple to complex, passing through intermediate "stepping stone" states. Here we present the first phylogenetic-based study of the evolution of complex chemical defenses in millipedes by generating the largest genomic-based phylogenetic dataset ever assembled for the group. Our phylogenomic results demonstrate that chemical complexity shows a clear pattern of escalation through time. New pathways are added in a stepwise pattern, leading to greater chemical complexity, independently in a number of derived lineages. This complexity gradually increased through time, leading to the advent of three distantly related chemically complex evolutionary lineages, each uniquely characteristic of each of the respective millipede groups.