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Integr Comp Biol. 2007 Aug;47(2):234-44. doi: 10.1093/icb/icm025. Epub 2007 May 22.

Evolution of ontogeny: linking epigenetic remodeling and genetic adaptation in skeletal structures.

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  • 1Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721 USA.


Evolutionary diversifications are commonly attributed to the continued modifications of a conserved genetic toolkit of developmental pathways, such that complexity and convergence in organismal forms are assumed to be due to similarity in genetic mechanisms or environmental conditions. This approach, however, confounds the causes of organismal development with the causes of organismal differences and, as such, has only limited utility for addressing the cause of evolutionary change. Molecular mechanisms that are closely involved in both developmental response to environmental signals and major evolutionary innovations and diversifications are uniquely suited to bridge this gap by connecting explicitly the causes of within-generation variation with the causes of divergence of taxa. Developmental pathways of bone formation and a common role for bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs) in both epigenetic bone remodeling and the evolution of major adaptive diversifications provide such opportunity. We show that variation in timing of ossification can result in similar phenotypic patterns through epigenetically induced changes in gene expression and propose that both genetic accommodation of environmentally induced developmental pathways and flexibility in development across environments evolve through heterochronic shifts in bone maturation relative to exposure to unpredictable environments. We suggest that such heterochronic shifts in ossification can not only buffer development under fluctuating environments while maintaining epigenetic sensitivity critical for normal skeletal formation, but also enable epigenetically induced gene expression to generate specialized morphological adaptations. We review studies of environmental sensitivity of BMP pathways and their regulation of formation, remodeling, and repair of cartilage and bone to examine the hypothesis that BMP-mediated skeletal adaptations are facilitated by evolved reactivity of BMPs to external signals. Surprisingly, no empirical study to date has identified the molecular mechanism behind developmental plasticity in skeletal traits. We outline a conceptual framework for future studies that focus on mediation of phenotypic plasticity in skeletal development by the patterns of BMP expression.

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