The revolution of canalization and the breaking of Von Baer's Laws: Modeling the evolution of development with epistasis

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Evolution can change the development processes underlying a character without changing the average expression of the character itself. This sort of change must occur in both the evolution of canalization, in which a character becomes increasingly buffered against genetic or developmental variation, and in the phenomenon of closely related species that show similar adult phenotypes but different underlying developmental patterns. To study such phenomena, I develop a model that follows evolution on a surface representing adult phenotype as a function of underlying developmental characters. A contour on such a 'phenotype landscape' is a set of states of developmental characters that produce the same adult phenotype. Epistasis induces curvature of this surface, and degree of canalization is represented by the slope along a contour. I first discuss the geometric properties of phenotype landscapes, relating epistasis to canalization. I then impose a fitness function on the phenotype and model evolution of developmental characters as a function of the fitness function and the local geometry of the surface. This model shows how canalization evolves as a population approaches an optimum phenotype. It further shows that under some circumstances, 'decanalization' can occur, in which the expression of adult phenotype becomes increasingly sensitive to developmental variation. This process can cause very similar populations to diverge from one another developmentally even when their adult phenotypes experience identical selection regimes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)647-656
Number of pages10
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1998


  • Canalization
  • Epistasis
  • Evolution of development
  • Phenotype landscape
  • Quantitative genetics


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