Theory in Biosciences

, Volume 133, Issue 3–4, pp 145–163 | Cite as

The role of self-organization in developmental evolution

Original Paper


In developmental and evolutionary biology, particular emphasis has been given to the relationship between transcription factors and the cognate cis-regulatory elements of their target genes. These constitute the gene regulatory networks that control expression and are assumed to causally determine the formation of structures and body plans. Comparative analysis has, however, established a broad sequence homology among species that nonetheless display quite different anatomies. Transgenic experiments have also confirmed that many developmentally important elements are, in fact, functionally interchangeable. Although dependent upon the appropriate degree of gene expression, the actual construction of specific structures appears not directly linked to the functions of gene products alone. Instead, the self-formation of complex patterns, due in large part to epigenetic and non-genetic determinants, remains a persisting theme in the study of ontogeny and regenerative medicine. Recent evidence indeed points to the existence of a self-organizing process, operating through a set of intrinsic rules and forces, which imposes coordination and a holistic order upon cells and tissue. This has been repeatedly demonstrated in experiments on regeneration as well as in the autonomous formation of structures in vitro. The process cannot be wholly attributed to the functional outcome of protein–protein interactions or to concentration gradients of diffusible chemicals. This phenomenon is examined here along with some of the methodological and theoretical approaches that are now used in understanding the causal basis for self-organization in development and its evolution.


Self-organization Gene regulatory networks Morphogenesis Evo-devo Regeneration 


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Laboratory of Systems Biology and BioinformaticsManchesterUK

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