, Volume 103, Issue 2, pp 117–125 | Cite as

Gene networks, occlusal clocks, and functional patches: new understanding of pattern and process in the evolution of the dentition

  • P. David Polly
Review Article


Our understanding of the evolution of the dentition has been transformed by advances in the developmental biology, genetics, and functional morphology of teeth, as well as the methods available for studying tooth form and function. The hierarchical complexity of dental developmental genetics combined with dynamic effects of cells and tissues during development allow for substantial, rapid, and potentially non-linear evolutionary changes. Studies of selection on tooth function in the wild and evolutionary functional comparisons both suggest that tooth function and adaptation to diets are the most important factors guiding the evolution of teeth, yet selection against random changes that produce malocclusions (selectional drift) may be an equally important factor in groups with tribosphenic dentitions. These advances are critically reviewed here.


Occlusion Tribosphenic teeth Evolution Developmental networks 



Thanks to the editors of Odontology for inviting this review, to M. Fortelius and J. Jernvall for providing references, and for two anonymous reviewers whose comments improved the text. Philip Myers of the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology provided access to the bat specimen in Fig. 1. This paper is dedicated to Percy M. Butler, who pioneered the study of dental evolutionary developmental biology and who passed away at the age of 102, still engaged in active research on teeth, while this review was being prepared.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© The Society of The Nippon Dental University 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Geological SciencesIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA
  2. 2.Department of BiologyIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA
  3. 3.Department of AnthropologyIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA

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