Evolution of Development


Research in the field of evolutionary developmental biology, or “evo‐devo”, addresses how genetic changes result in developmental changes, causing phenotypic differences between species over evolutionary time. Evo‐devo has its roots in comparative embryology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but the fields of evolution and development diverged soon thereafter. Advances in developmental genetics in the 1970s and 1980s, combined with the discovery that distantly related organisms share key regulatory genes and processes, provided new avenues of research in evo‐devo. Today the strong interest in this field illustrates that evolutionary biologists increasingly wish to understand mechanistically how genotypic differences are translated into phenotypic diversity. Current studies compare developmental processes across many taxonomic scales, from between phyla to between closely related species. The combination of traditional developmental biology techniques and modern approaches such as genomics has made evo‐devo studies possible in a wide range of organisms.

Key Concepts:

  • Evolutionary developmental biology is the study of how developmental differences result in phenotypic diversity.

  • Homologues of regulatory genes often have similar functions in even distantly related species.

  • Enhancer modularity allows regulatory genes to evolve new functions while maintaining previously established functions.

  • Studies between closely related species increase the power of detecting nucleotide changes that cause phenotypic differences.

Keywords: evolution; development; heterochrony; regulatory gene; phenotypic plasticity

Figure 1.

Hypothetical example of modular enhancers and phenotypic change. Enhancers are illustrated as white boxes on the left. The transcription start site of the gene is indicated by an arrow and exons are shown as grey boxes.



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How to Cite close
Bickel, Ryan D, and Brisson, Jennifer A(Jun 2011) Evolution of Development. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0001661.pub2]