Evolutionary developmental biology

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Evolutionary developmental biology (informally, evo-devo) is a field of biology that compares the developmental processes of different organisms to determine the ancestral relationship between them, and to discover how developmental processes evolved.[1] It addresses the origin and evolution of embryonic development; how modifications of development and developmental processes lead to the production of novel features, such as the evolution of feathers;[2] the role of developmental plasticity in evolution; how ecology impacts development and evolutionary change; and the developmental basis of homoplasy and homology.[3]

Although interest in the relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny extends back to the nineteenth century, the contemporary field of evo-devo has gained impetus from the discovery of genes regulating embryonic development in model organisms.[4]

Nevertheless, it now appears that just as evolution tends to create new genes from parts of old genes (molecular economy), evo-devo demonstrates that evolution alters developmental processes to create new and novel structures from the old gene networks (such as bone structures of the jaw deviating to the ossicles of the middle ear) or will conserve (molecular economy) a similar program in a host of organisms such as eye development genes in molluscs, insects, and vertebrates.[5][6] Initially the major interest has been in the evidence of homology in the cellular and molecular mechanisms that regulate body plan and organ development. However, subsequent approaches include developmental changes associated with speciation.[7]

Basic principles[edit]

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution builds on three principles: natural selection, heredity, and variation. At the time that Darwin wrote, the principles underlying heredity and variation were poorly understood. In the 1940s, however, biologists incorporated Gregor Mendel's principles of genetics to explain both, resulting in the modern synthesis. It was not until the 1980s and 1990s, however, when more comparative molecular sequence data between different kinds of organisms was amassed and detailed, that an understanding of the molecular basis of the developmental mechanisms began to form.

Currently, it is well understood how genetic mutation occurs.[8] However, developmental mechanisms are not understood sufficiently to explain which kinds of phenotypic variation can arise in each generation from variation at the genetic level. Evolutionary developmental biology studies how the dynamics of development determine the phenotypic variation arising from genetic variation and how that affects phenotypic evolution (especially its direction). At the same time evolutionary developmental biology also studies how development itself evolves.

Thus the origins of evolutionary developmental biology come both from an improvement in molecular biology techniques as applied to development, and from the full appreciation of the limitations of classic neo-Darwinism as applied to phenotypic evolution. Some evo-devo researchers see themselves as extending and enhancing the modern synthesis by incorporating the findings of molecular genetics and developmental biology into an extended evolutionary synthesis.[9][10]

Evolutionary developmental biology can be distinguished from earlier approaches to evolutionary theory by its focus on a few crucial ideas. One of these is modularity: as has been long recognized, plants and animal bodies are modular: they are organized into developmentally and anatomically distinct parts. Often these parts are repeated, such as fingers, ribs, and body segments. Evo-devo seeks the genetic and evolutionary basis for the division of the embryo into distinct modules, and for the partly independent development of such modules.[1]

Another central idea recognizes that some gene products function as switches whereas others act as diffusible signals. Genes specify proteins, some of which act as structural components of cells and others as: hormones, receptors and enzymes that regulate various biochemical pathways within an organism. Most biologists working within the modern synthesis assumed that an organism is a straightforward reflection of its component genes. The modification of existing, or evolution of new, biochemical pathways (and, ultimately, the evolution of new species of organisms) depended on specific genetic mutations. In 1961, however, Jacques Monod, Jean-Pierre Changeux and François Jacob discovered a gene, the so-called 'Lac operon' in the bacterium Escherichia coli that functioned only when "switched on" by an environmental stimulus.[11] Later, scientists discovered specific genes in animals (including a subgroup of the genes which contain the homeobox DNA motif, called Hox genes) that act as switches for other genes, and could be induced by other gene products, morphogens, that act analogously to the external stimuli in bacteria. These discoveries drew biologists' attention to the fact that genes could be selectively turned on and off, rather than being always active, and that highly disparate organisms (for example, fruit flies and human beings) may use the same genes for embryogenesis (e.g., the genes of the "developmental-genetic toolkit", see below), just regulating them differently.

Similarly, organismal form can be influenced by mutations in promoter regions of genes, those DNA sequences at which the products of some genes bind to and control the activity of the same or other genes, not only protein-specifying sequences. This finding suggested that the crucial distinction between different species (even different orders or phyla) may be due less to differences in their content of gene products than to differences in spatial and temporal expression of conserved genes. The implication that large evolutionary changes in body morphology are associated with changes in gene regulation, rather than with the evolution of new genes, suggested that Hox and other "switch" genes may play a major role in evolution, something that contradicts the neo-Darwinian synthesis.

Another focus of evo-devo is developmental plasticity, the basis of the recognition that organismal phenotypes are not uniquely determined by their genotypes. If generation of phenotypes is conditional, and dependent on external or environmental inputs, evolution can proceed by a "phenotype-first" route,[4][12] with genetic change following, rather than initiating, the formation of changes in the phenotype such as to body structures (morphology). Mary Jane West-Eberhard argued the case for this in her 2003 book Developmental plasticity and evolution.[12]


An early version of recapitulation theory, also called the biogenetic law or embryological parallelism, was put forward by Étienne Serres in 1824–26 as what became known as the "Meckel-Serres Law" which attempted to provide a link between comparative embryology and a "pattern of unification" in the organic world. It was supported by Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire as part of his ideas of idealism, and became a prominent part of his version of Lamarckism leading to disagreements with Georges Cuvier. It was widely supported in the Edinburgh and London schools of higher anatomy around 1830, notably by Robert Edmond Grant, but was opposed by Karl Ernst von Baer's embryology of divergence in which embryonic parallels only applied to early stages where the embryo took a general form, after which more specialised forms diverged from this shared unity in a branching pattern. The anatomist Richard Owen used this to support his idealist concept of species as showing the unrolling of a divine plan from an archetype, and in the 1830s attacked the transmutation of species proposed by Lamarck, Geoffroy and Grant.[13] In the 1850s Owen began to support an evolutionary view that the history of life was the gradual unfolding of a teleological divine plan,[14] in a continuous "ordained becoming", with new species appearing by natural birth.[15]

In On the Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin proposed evolution through natural selection, a theory central to modern biology. Darwin recognised the importance of embryonic development in the understanding of evolution, and the way in which von Baer's branching pattern matched his own idea of descent with modification:[16]

We can see why characters derived from the embryo should be of equal importance with those derived from the adult, for a natural classification of course includes all ages.[17]

Ernst Haeckel (1866), in his endeavour to produce a synthesis of Darwin's theory with Lamarckism and Naturphilosophie, proposed that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," that is, the development of the embryo of every species (ontogeny) fully repeats the evolutionary development of that species (phylogeny), in Geoffroy's linear model rather than Darwin's idea of branching evolution.[16] Haeckel's concept explained, for example, why humans, and indeed all vertebrates, have gill slits and tails early in embryonic development. The recapitulation theory has since been discredited. However, it served as a backdrop for a renewed interest in the evolution of development after the modern evolutionary synthesis was established (roughly 1936 to 1947). Two of Haeckel's other ideas about the evolution of development have fared better: he argued in the 1870s that changes in the timing (heterochrony) and positioning within the body (heterotopy) of aspects of embryonic development would drive evolution by changing the shape of a descendant's body compared to an ancestor's. It took a century before evo-devo showed these ideas to be correct.[18]

Stephen Jay Gould called the recapitulation explanation of evolution "terminal addition"; as if every evolutionary advance was added as a new stage by reducing the duration of all the older stages. The idea was based on observations of neoteny.[19] Haeckel's heterochrony is a more general mechanism for evolutionary change, allowing any timings to change in any combination.[20]

D'Arcy Thompson postulated that differential growth rates could produce variations in form in his 1917 book On Growth and Form. He showed the underlying similarities in body plans and how geometric transformations could be used to explain the variations.

Edward B. Lewis discovered homeotic genes, rooting the emerging discipline of evo-devo in molecular genetics. In 2000, a special section of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) was devoted to "evo-devo",[21] and an entire 2005 issue of the Journal of Experimental Zoology Part B: Molecular and Developmental Evolution was devoted to the key evo-devo topics of evolutionary innovation and morphological novelty.[22]

The developmental-genetic toolkit[edit]

Expression of all 8 Hox genes in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster

The developmental-genetic toolkit consists of a small fraction of the genes in an organism's genome whose products control its development. These genes are highly conserved among phyla. Differences in deployment of toolkit genes affect the body plan and the number, identity, and pattern of body parts. The majority of toolkit genes are components of signaling pathways, and encode for the production of transcription factors, cell adhesion proteins, cell surface receptor proteins (and signalling ligands that bind to them), and secreted morphogens, all of these participate in defining the fate of undifferentiated cells, generating spatial and temporal patterns, which in turn form the body plan of the organism. Among the most important of the toolkit genes are those of the Hox gene cluster, or complex. Hox genes, transcription factors containing the more broadly distributed homeobox protein-binding DNA motif, function in patterning the body axis. Thus, by combinatorial specifying the identity of particular body regions, Hox genes determine where limbs and other body segments will grow in a developing embryo or larva. A paradigmatic toolkit gene is Pax6/eyeless, which controls eye formation in all animals. It has been found to produce eyes in mice and Drosophila, even if mouse Pax6/eyeless was expressed in Drosophila.[23]

This means that a big part of the morphological evolution undergone by organisms is a product of variation in the genetic toolkit, either by the genes changing their expression pattern or acquiring new functions. A good example of the first is the enlargement of the beak in Darwin's large ground-finch (Geospiza magnirostris), in which the gene BMP is responsible for the larger beak of this bird, relative to the other finches.[24]

The loss of legs in snakes and other squamates is another good example of genes changing their expression pattern. In this case the gene Distal-less is very under-expressed, or not expressed at all, in the regions where limbs would form in other tetrapods.[25] This same gene determines the eyespot pattern in butterfly wings,[26] which shows that toolbox genes can change their function.

Toolbox genes, as well as being highly conserved, also tend to evolve the same function convergently or in parallel. Classic examples of this are the already mentioned Distal-less gene, which is responsible for appendage formation in both tetrapods and insects, or, at a finer scale, the generation of wing patterns in the butterflies Heliconius erato and Heliconius melpomene. These butterflies are Müllerian mimics whose coloration pattern arose in different evolutionary events, but is controlled by the same genes.[27] This supports Marc Kirschner and John C. Gerhart's theory of Facilitated Variation, which states that morphological evolutionary novelty is generated by regulatory changes in various members of a large set of conserved mechanisms of development and physiology.[28]

Development and the origin of novelty[edit]

Among the more surprising and, perhaps, counterintuitive (from a neo-Darwinian viewpoint) results of recent research in evolutionary developmental biology is that the diversity of body plans and morphology in organisms across many phyla are not necessarily reflected in diversity at the level of the sequences of genes, including those of the developmental genetic toolkit and other genes involved in development. Indeed, as Gerhart and Kirschner have noted, there is an apparent paradox: "where we most expect to find variation, we find conservation, a lack of change".[29]

Even within a species, the occurrence of novel forms within a population does not generally correlate with levels of genetic variation sufficient to account for all morphological diversity. For example, there is significant variation in limb morphologies amongst salamanders and in differences in segment number in centipedes, even when the respective genetic variation is low.

A major question then, for evo-devo studies, is: If the morphological novelty we observe at the level of different clades is not always reflected in the genome, where does it come from? Apart from neo-Darwinian mechanisms such as mutation, translocation and duplication of genes, novelty may also arise by mutation-driven changes in gene regulation. The finding that much biodiversity is not due to differences in genes, but rather to alterations in gene regulation, has introduced an important new element into evolutionary theory.[30][31] Diverse organisms may have highly conserved developmental genes, but highly divergent regulatory mechanisms for these genes. Changes in gene regulation are "second-order" effects of genes, resulting from the interaction and timing of activity of gene networks, as distinct from the functioning of the individual genes in the network.

A genetic theory of morphological evolution[edit]

The discovery of the homeotic Hox gene family in vertebrates in the 1980s allowed researchers in developmental biology to empirically assess the relative roles of gene duplication and gene regulation with respect to their importance in the evolution of morphological diversity. Several biologists, including Sean B. Carroll suggest that "changes in the cis-regulatory systems of genes" are more significant than "changes in gene number or protein function".[32] These researchers argue that the combinatorial nature of transcriptional regulation allows a rich substrate for morphological diversity, since variations in the level, pattern, or timing of gene expression may provide more variation for natural selection to act upon than changes in the gene product alone.

Carroll, reviewing a quarter-century of work on the genetic theory of morphological evolution, proposed 8 principles towards such a theory, namely that form (body plan) largely evolves by changing the expression of highly conserved proteins, and that those changes happen mainly through mutations in the cis-regulatory sequences which regulate large networks of genes via pleiotropic developmental loci. Carroll's 8 principles are:[33]

  1. Mosaic pleiotropy: most of the proteins that control development take part in many independent developmental processes and give pattern to many dissimilar body structures.[33]
  2. Ancestral genetic complexity: Animal taxa with disparate morphology, like cnidarians, insects, and vertebrates and most other phyla, share similar body-constructing genetic toolkits and body-patterning genes, such as Hox.[33]
  3. Functional equivalence: Many of the homologous toolkit proteins (orthologs and paralogs) from dissimilar animals (like insects and vertebrates) can be substituted for each other and continue to function. The proteins and their interactions (e.g. with receptors) have therefore changed little in the past billion years.[33]
  4. Deep homology: The development of structures like eyes, limbs, and hearts (in phyla as diverse as insects and vertebrates, so the structures were considered non-homologous) are controlled by similar sets of genes and tightly conserved genetic regulatory circuits. For example, PAX-6 governs eye development in the whole animal kingdom, and distal-less governs appendage development in different phyla. This has prompted a revision of the concept of homology.[33]
  5. Infrequent toolkit gene duplication: Toolkit genes are much more rarely duplicated than genes in other gene families. Toolkit gene duplication may be selected against, since some developmental processes are sensitive to gene dosage.[33]
  6. Heterotopy: Morphological evolution is accompanied by changes in the spatial regulation of toolkit genes during development, along with the genes that they regulate. For example, the spatial location of a developmental process like the formation of a limb or of a pigmentation pattern is modified between species.[33]
  7. Modularity of cis-regulatory elements: Pleiotropic toolkit loci are distinguished by big, complicated, and modular cis-regulatory elements. For example, while a non-pleiotropic rhodopsin gene in Drosophila has a CRE just a few hundred base pairs long, the pleiotropic eyeless cis-regulatory region contains 6 CREs in over 7000 base pairs.[33]
  8. Vast regulatory networks: Each regulatory protein controls "scores to hundreds" of cis-regulatory elements. For instance, 67 Drosophila transcription factors controlled on average 124 target genes each.[33]

Consolidation of epigenetic changes[edit]

Epigenetic alterations of gene regulation or phenotype generation that are subsequently consolidated by changes at the gene level constitute another class of mechanisms for evolutionary innovation. Epigenetic changes include modification of the genetic material due to methylation and other reversible chemical alteration,[34] as well as nonprogrammed remolding of the organism by physical and other environmental effects due to the inherent plasticity of developmental mechanisms.[12] The biologists Stuart A. Newman and Gerd B. Müller have suggested that organisms early in the history of multicellular life were more susceptible to this second category of epigenetic determination than are modern organisms, providing a basis for early macroevolutionary changes.[35]

Ecological evolutionary developmental biology[edit]

Ecological evolutionary developmental biology (Eco-evo-devo) is a field that integrates research from developmental biology and ecology to examine their relationship with evolutionary theory.[36] Researchers in this field study concepts and mechanisms such as developmental plasticity, epigenetic inheritance, genetic assimilation, niche construction and symbiosis.[37][38]

Key questions[edit]

Armin Moczek and 22 colleagues, reviewing the whole field of evo-devo in 2015, note that it unifies biological disciplines including evolution, development, paleontology, neurobiology, cellular biology, molecular biology, quantitative genetics, the study of human diseases, and ecology. They identify questions at the heart of all these disciplines that evo-devo should be able to answer, and note that it should also be able to inform decisions on policy and to improve science education.[1]

In the view of Moczek and colleagues, evo-devo has already transformed understanding of 4 areas of evolutionary biology:[1]

  1. The origins of novelty: Darwinism is based on descent with modification, i.e. building on the old, so the new requires explanation.[1]
  2. The causes of variation: Darwinism identified variation as the material for evolution, but assumed mutation was its source. Evo-devo shows that several other sources, namely: duplication of genes and body parts; modification of gene control domains; interactions within gene regulatory networks; and co-option at different levels, all enable new traits to evolve.[1]
  3. The sources of homology: In 1843, Richard Owen defined homology as "the same organ in different animals under every variety of form and function". Evo-devo enables sameness to be defined more precisely; in 2009, N. Shubin and colleagues including Carroll identified "deep homology" of developmental mechanisms.[1]
  4. Convergent evolution of phenotypes: The same traits can evolve repeatedly by a variety of mechanisms, such as selection on the same gene loci, repeated co-option of particular genetic and developmental modules into new places, or reawakening of dormant developmental pathways.[1]

Evolution has taken specific paths, recorded partly in the genomes of different species, the evo-devo mechanisms showing how change can occur, and partly in the fossil record, the palaeontological evidence showing what in fact happened. Evo-devo can thus clarify palaeontology, and has already done so in cases like the explanation of the origins of the complicated shell of turtles, unique to this group of reptiles.[1]

See also[edit]


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  • Bowler, Peter J. (2003). Evolution: the history of an idea. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-23693-9. 
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