Developmental Plasticity and Evolution

Living reference work entry


The environment plays a crucial role in the developing organism, first in defining the developmental trajectory from genotype to phenotype, then by modifying that trajectory by natural selection. Nearly all traits exhibit some degree of phenotypic plasticity: the capacity to change, or to develop in response to, the environment. The plasticity of a trait can itself evolve, and some of the most specialized adaptations include evolved responses to environmental variation. Plasticity has long been theorized to potentiate adaptive evolution, by environmental induction of phenotypes that boosts the potential for subsequent genetic evolution or by revealing cryptic alleles in new environments that in turn generate new adaptive phenotypes. A plastic trait may vary continuously, which can be described by norms of reaction, or it may produce discrete types as a polyphenism, a codified adaptive response to specific environmental signals. The concept of plasticity can also be applied to variation in phenotype associated with a single genotype in a single environment. Such microenvironmental plasticity defines in part the robustness of a trait. In the evolution of complex traits, tension between plasticity and its opposite, canalization, may be crucial for rapid evolution, adaptation, and the emergence of novelty.


Reaction norm Polyphenism GxE Genetic accommodation Genetic assimilation Canalization Evo-devo 


  1. Agrawal AA, Laforsch C, Tollrian R (1999) Transgenerational induction of defences in animals and plants. Nature 401:60–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Ehrenreich IM, Pfennig DW (2016) Genetic assimilation: a review of its potential proximate causes and evolutionary consequences. Ann Bot 117:769–779CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Fusco G, Minelli A (2010) Phenotypic plasticity in development and evolution: facts and concepts. Philos Trans R Soc Lond Ser B Biol Sci 365:547–556CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Galton F (1894) Natural inheritance. Macmillan and Company, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Geiler-Samerotte KA, Zhu YO, Goulet BE, Hall DW, Siegal ML (2016) Selection transforms the landscape of genetic variation interacting with Hsp90. PLoS Biol 14:e2000465CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  6. Gibson G, Hogness DS (1996) Effect of polymorphism in the Drosophila regulatory gene Ultrabithorax on homeotic stability. Science 271:200–203CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Hermisson J, Wagner GP (2004) The population genetic theory of hidden variation and genetic robustness. Genetics 168:2271–2284CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  8. Kawecki TJ (1994) Accumulation of deleterious mutations and the evolutionary cost of being a generalist. Am Nat 144:833–838CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Leichty AR, Pfennig DW, Jones CD, Pfennig KS (2012) Relaxed genetic constraint is ancestral to the evolution of phenotypic plasticity. Integr Comp Biol 52:16–30CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  10. Levis NA, Pfennig DW (2016) Evaluating ‘plasticity-first’ evolution in nature: key criteria and empirical approaches. Trends Ecol Evol 31:563–574CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Levis NA, Pfennig DW (2017) Phenotypic plasticity. In: Pfennig K (ed) Oxford bibliographies in evolutionary biology. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  12. Masel J, Siegal ML (2009) Robustness: mechanisms and consequences. Trends Genet 25:395–403CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  13. Moczek AP et al (2011) The role of developmental plasticity in evolutionary innovation. Proc Biol Sci 278:2705–2713CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  14. Morgante F, Sorensen P, Sorensen DA, Maltecca C, Mackay TF (2015) Genetic architecture of micro-environmental plasticity in Drosophila melanogaster. Sci Rep 5:09785CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Murren CJ et al (2015) Constraints on the evolution of phenotypic plasticity: limits and costs of phenotype and plasticity. Heredity 115:293–301CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  16. Nijhout HF (2003) Development and evolution of adaptive polyphenisms. Evol Dev 5:9–18CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Paaby AB, Gibson G (2016) Cryptic genetic variation in evolutionary developmental genetics. Biology 5(2):28CrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  18. Paaby AB, Rockman MV (2014) Cryptic genetic variation: evolution’s hidden substrate. Nat Rev Genet 15:247–258CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  19. Paaby AB, White AG, Riccardi DD, Gunsalus KC, Piano F, Rockman MV (2015) Wild worm embryogenesis harbors ubiquitous polygenic modifier variation. eLife 4:e09178CrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  20. Pigliucci M (2005) Evolution of phenotypic plasticity: where are we going now? Trends Ecol Evol 20:481–486CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Rutherford SL, Lindquist S (1998) Hsp90 as a capacitor for morphological evolution. Nature 396:336–342CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Schlichting CD, Pigliucci M (1998) Phenotypic evolution: a reaction norm perspective. Sinauer Associates Incorporated, SunderlandGoogle Scholar
  23. Simpson SJ, Sword GA, Lo N (2011) Polyphenism in insects. Curr Biol 21:R738–R749CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Stearns SC (1989) The evolutionary significance of phenotypic plasticity. Bioscience 39:436–445CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Susoy V, Ragsdale EJ, Kanzaki N, Sommer RJ (2015) Rapid diversification associated with a macroevolutionary pulse of developmental plasticity. eLife 4:e05463CrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  26. True JR, Haag ES (2001) Developmental system drift and flexibility in evolutionary trajectories. Evol Dev 3:109–119CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Verster AJ, Ramani AK, McKay SJ, Fraser AG (2014) Comparative RNAi screens in C. elegans and C. briggsae reveal the impact of developmental system drift on gene function. PLoS Genet 10(2):e1004077CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  28. Waddington CH (1953) Genetic assimilation of an acquired character. Evolution 7:118–126CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Waddington CH (1957) The strategy of the genes. George Allen and Unwin, LondonGoogle Scholar
  30. Wagner GP, Booth G, Bagheri-Chaichian H (1997) A population genetic theory of canalization. Evolution 51:329–347CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. West-Eberhard MJ (2003) Developmental plasticity and evolution. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Biological Sciences, Georgia Institute of TechnologyAtlantaUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Mihaela Pavličev
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.University of CincinnatiCincinnatiUSA
  2. 2.Cincinnati Children`s Hospital Medical CenterCincinnatiUSA

Personalised recommendations