Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 18, Issue 2, pp 219-247

First online:

Unlocking the Black Box between Genotype and Phenotype: Cell Condensations as Morphogenetic (modular) Units

  • Brian K. HallAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, Dalhousie University

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


Embryonic development and ontogeny occupy whatis often depicted as the black box betweengenes – the genotype – and the features(structures, functions, behaviors) of organisms– the phenotype; the phenotype is not merelya one-to-one readout of the genotype. Thegene’s home, context, and locus of operation isthe cell. Initially, in ontogeny, that cell isthe single-celled zygote. As developmentensues, multicellular assemblages of like cells(modules) progressively organized as germlayers, embryonic fields, anlage,condensations, or blastemata, enable genes toplay their roles in development and evolution.As modules, condensations are fundamentaldevelopmental and selectable units ofmorphology (morphogenetic units) that mediateinteractions between genotype and phenotype viaevolutionary developmental mechanisms. In ahierarchy of emergent processes, gene networksand gene cascades (genetic modules) link thegenotype with morphogenetic units such ascondensations, while epigenetic processes suchas embryonic inductions, tissue interactionsand functional integration, link morphogeneticunits to the phenotype. To support theseconclusions I distinguish units of heredityfrom units of transmission and discussepigenetic inheritance by tracing the historyof relationship between embryology andevolution, especially the role(s) assigned tocells or to cellular components in generatingtheories of morphological change in evolution.The concept of cells as modular morphogeneticunits is modeled and illustrated using themammalian dentary bone.

cell condensations development embryonic fields epigenetics evolution evolutionary developmental biology genotype modularity modules morphogenetic units phenotype