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Concept: Evolutionary developmental biology


A recent study demonstrates that intersubject variability in functional connectivity is heterogeneous across the cortex, with significantly higher variability in multimodal association cortex. Rather than being ‘noise’, intersubject variability is invaluable for understanding principles of brain evolution and ontogenetic development, and for interpreting statistical maps in task-based functional neuroimaging studies.

Concepts: Brain, Developmental biology, Neuroimaging, Cerebral cortex, Evolutionary developmental biology, Functional neuroimaging



Studies of model insects have greatly increased our understanding of animal development. Yet, they are limited in scope to this small pool of model species: a small number of representatives for a hyperdiverse group with highly varied developmental processes. One factor behind this narrow scope is the challenging nature of traditional methods of study, such as histology and dissection, which can preclude quantitative analysis and do not allow the development of a single individual to be followed. Here, we use high-resolution X-ray computed tomography (CT) to overcome these issues, and three-dimensionally image numerous lepidopteran pupae throughout their development. The resulting models are presented in the electronic supplementary material, as are figures and videos, documenting a single individual throughout development. They provide new insight and details of lepidopteran metamorphosis, and allow the measurement of tracheal and gut volume. Furthermore, this study demonstrates early and rapid development of the tracheae, which become visible in scans just 12 h after pupation. This suggests that there is less remodelling of the tracheal system than previously expected, and is methodologically important because the tracheal system is an often-understudied character system in development. In the future, this form of time-lapse CT-scanning could allow faster and more detailed developmental studies on a wider range of taxa than is presently possible.

Concepts: Insect, Developmental biology, Larva, Medical imaging, Model organism, Evolutionary developmental biology, Metamorphosis, Pupa


Whales receive underwater sounds through a fundamentally different mechanism than their close terrestrial relatives. Instead of hearing through the ear canal, cetaceans hear through specialized fatty tissues leading to an evolutionarily novel feature: an acoustic funnel located anterior to the tympanic aperture. We traced the ontogenetic development of this feature in 56 fetal specimens from 10 different families of toothed (odontocete) and baleen (mysticete) whales, using X-ray computed tomography. We also charted ear ossification patterns through ontogeny to understand the impact of heterochronic developmental processes. We determined that the acoustic funnel arises from a prominent V-shaped structure established early in ontogeny, formed by the malleus and the goniale. In odontocetes, this V-formation develops into a cone-shaped funnel facing anteriorly, directly into intramandibular acoustic fats, which is likely functionally linked to the anterior orientation of sound reception in echolocation. In contrast, the acoustic funnel in balaenopterids rotates laterally, later in fetal development, consistent with a lateral sound reception pathway. Balaenids and several fossil mysticetes retain a somewhat anteriorly oriented acoustic funnel in the mature condition, indicating that a lateral sound reception pathway in balaenopterids may be a recent evolutionary innovation linked to specialized feeding modes, such as lunge-feeding.

Concepts: Evolution, Developmental biology, Medical imaging, Auditory system, Ear, Sound, Evolutionary developmental biology, Sperm whale


Waddington’s epigenetic landscape is probably the most famous and most powerful metaphor in developmental biology. Cells, represented by balls, roll downhill through a landscape of bifurcating valleys. Each new valley represents a possible cell fate and the ridges between the valleys maintain the cell fate once it has been chosen. Here I examine models of two important developmental processes - cell-fate induction and lateral inhibition - and ask whether the landscapes for these models at least qualitatively resemble Waddington’s picture. For cell-fate induction, the answer is no. The commitment of a cell to a new fate corresponds to the disappearance of a valley from the landscape, not the splitting of one valley into two, and it occurs through a type of bifurcation - a saddle-node bifurcation - that possesses an intrinsic irreversibility that is missing from Waddington’s picture. Lateral inhibition, a symmetrical cell-cell competition process, corresponds better to Waddington’s picture, with one valley reversibly splitting into two through a pitchfork bifurcation. I propose an alternative epigenetic landscape that has numerous valleys and ridges right from the start, with the process of cell-fate commitment corresponding to the irreversible disappearance of some of these valleys and ridges, via cell-fate induction, complemented by the creation of new valleys and ridges through processes like cell-cell competition.

Concepts: Gene expression, Histone, Developmental biology, Bifurcation theory, Evolutionary developmental biology, Valley, Saddle-node bifurcation, Epigenetic landscape


The high sequence and structural homology among the hsp90 paralogs - Hsp90α, Hsp90β, Grp94, and Trap-1 - has made the development of paralog-specific inhibitors a challenging proposition.

Concepts: Topological space, Evolutionary developmental biology, Exact sequence


Phase change plays a prominent role in determining the form of growth and development. Although considerable attention has been focused on identifying the regulatory control mechanisms of phase change, a detailed understanding of the genetic architecture of this phenomenon is still lacking. We address this issue by deriving a computational model. The model is founded on the framework of functional mapping aimed at characterizing the interplay between quantitative trait loci (QTLs) and development through biologically meaningful mathematical equations. A multiphasic growth equation was implemented into functional mapping, which, via a series of hypothesis tests, allows the quantification of how QTLs regulate the timing and pattern of vegetative phase transition between independently regulated, temporally coordinated processes. The model was applied to analyze stem radial growth data of an interspecific hybrid family derived from two Populus species during the first 24 yr of ontogeny. Several key QTLs related to phase change have been characterized, most of which were observed to be in the adjacent regions of candidate genes. The identification of phase transition QTLs, whose expression is regulated by endogenous and environmental signals, may enhance our understanding of the evolution of development in changing environments.

Concepts: Scientific method, Genetics, Evolution, Biology, Developmental biology, Quantitative trait locus, Regulation, Evolutionary developmental biology


Since the last major theoretical integration in evolutionary biology-the modern synthesis (MS) of the 1940s-the biosciences have made significant advances. The rise of molecular biology and evolutionary developmental biology, the recognition of ecological development, niche construction and multiple inheritance systems, the ‘-omics’ revolution and the science of systems biology, among other developments, have provided a wealth of new knowledge about the factors responsible for evolutionary change. Some of these results are in agreement with the standard theory and others reveal different properties of the evolutionary process. A renewed and extended theoretical synthesis, advocated by several authors in this issue, aims to unite pertinent concepts that emerge from the novel fields with elements of the standard theory. The resulting theoretical framework differs from the latter in its core logic and predictive capacities. Whereas the MS theory and its various amendments concentrate on genetic and adaptive variation in populations, the extended framework emphasizes the role of constructive processes, ecological interactions and systems dynamics in the evolution of organismal complexity as well as its social and cultural conditions. Single-level and unilinear causation is replaced by multilevel and reciprocal causation. Among other consequences, the extended framework overcomes many of the limitations of traditional gene-centric explanation and entails a revised understanding of the role of natural selection in the evolutionary process. All these features stimulate research into new areas of evolutionary biology.

Concepts: DNA, Natural selection, Evolution, Biology, Evolutionary biology, Population genetics, Charles Darwin, Evolutionary developmental biology


The striking patterns of collective animal behavior, including ant trails, bird flocks, and fish schools, can result from local interactions among animals without centralized control. Several of these rules of interaction have been proposed, but it has proven difficult to discriminate which ones are implemented in nature. As a method to better discriminate among interaction rules, we propose to follow the slow birth of a rule of interaction during animal development. Specifically, we followed the development of zebrafish, Danio rerio, and found that larvae turn toward each other from 7 days postfertilization and increase the intensity of interactions until 3 weeks. This developmental dataset allows testing the parameter-free predictions of a simple rule in which animals attract each other part of the time, with attraction defined as turning toward another animal chosen at random. This rule makes each individual likely move to a high density of conspecifics, and moving groups naturally emerge. Development of attraction strength corresponds to an increase in the time spent in attraction behavior. Adults were found to follow the same attraction rule, suggesting a potential significance for adults of other species.

Concepts: Developmental biology, Larva, Fish, Model organism, Interaction, Emergence, Evolutionary developmental biology, Shoaling and schooling


The evolution of birds from theropod dinosaurs was one of the great evolutionary transitions in the history of life [1-22]. The macroevolutionary tempo and mode of this transition is poorly studied, which is surprising because it may offer key insight into major questions in evolutionary biology, particularly whether the origins of evolutionary novelties or new ecological opportunities are associated with unusually elevated “bursts” of evolution [23, 24]. We present a comprehensive phylogeny placing birds within the context of theropod evolution and quantify rates of morphological evolution and changes in overall morphological disparity across the dinosaur-bird transition. Birds evolved significantly faster than other theropods, but they are indistinguishable from their closest relatives in morphospace. Our results demonstrate that the rise of birds was a complex process: birds are a continuum of millions of years of theropod evolution, and there was no great jump between nonbirds and birds in morphospace, but once the avian body plan was gradually assembled, birds experienced an early burst of rapid anatomical evolution. This suggests that high rates of morphological evolution after the development of a novel body plan may be a common feature of macroevolution, as first hypothesized by G.G. Simpson more than 60 years ago [25].

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Bird, Evolutionary biology, Evolutionary developmental biology, Dinosaur, Theropoda, Modern evolutionary synthesis