How a growing organismal perspective is adding new depth to integrative studies of morphological evolution

Thomas J Sanger, Rajendhran Rajakumar
Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 2018 July 15
Over the past half century, the field of Evolutionary Developmental Biology, or Evo-devo, has integrated diverse fields of biology into a more synthetic understanding of morphological diversity. This has resulted in numerous insights into how development can evolve and reciprocally influence morphological evolution, as well as generated several novel theoretical areas. Although comparative by default, there remains a great gap in our understanding of adaptive morphological diversification and how developmental mechanisms influence the shape and pattern of phenotypic variation. Herein we highlight areas of research that are in the process of filling this void, and areas, if investigated more fully, that will add new insights into the diversification of morphology. At the centre of our discussion is an explicit awareness of organismal biology. Here we discuss an organismal framework that is supported by three distinct pillars. First, there is a need for Evo-devo to adopt a high-resolution phylogenetic approach in the study of morphological variation and its developmental underpinnings. Secondly, we propose that to understand the dynamic nature of morphological evolution, investigators need to give more explicit attention to the processes that generate evolutionarily relevant variation at the population level. Finally, we emphasize the need to address more thoroughly the processes that structure variation at micro- and macroevolutionary scales including modularity, morphological integration, constraint, and plasticity. We illustrate the power of these three pillars using numerous examples from both invertebrates and vertebrates to emphasize that many of these approaches are already present within the field, but have yet to be formally integrated into many research programs. We feel that the most exciting new insights will come where the traditional experimental approaches to Evo-devo are integrated more thoroughly with the principles of this organismal framework.

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