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Heredity (Edinb). 2015 Oct;115(4):276-84. doi: 10.1038/hdy.2014.92. Epub 2014 Oct 8.

Rethinking phenotypic plasticity and its consequences for individuals, populations and species.

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Ecology and Evolution in Microbial Model Systems, EEMiS, Department of Biology and Environmental Sciences, Linnaeus University, Kalmar, Sweden.


Much research has been devoted to identify the conditions under which selection favours flexible individuals or genotypes that are able to modify their growth, development and behaviour in response to environmental cues, to unravel the mechanisms of plasticity and to explore its influence on patterns of diversity among individuals, populations and species. The consequences of developmental plasticity and phenotypic flexibility for the performance and ecological success of populations and species have attracted a comparatively limited but currently growing interest. Here, I re-emphasize that an increased understanding of the roles of plasticity in these contexts requires a 'whole organism' (rather than 'single trait') approach, taking into consideration that organisms are integrated complex phenotypes. I further argue that plasticity and genetic polymorphism should be analysed and discussed within a common framework. I summarize predictions from theory on how phenotypic variation stemming from developmental plasticity and phenotypic flexibility may affect different aspects of population-level performance. I argue that it is important to distinguish between effects associated with greater interindividual phenotypic variation resulting from plasticity, and effects mediated by variation among individuals in the capacity to express plasticity and flexibility as such. Finally, I claim that rigorous testing of predictions requires methods that allow for quantifying and comparing whole organism plasticity, as well as the ability to experimentally manipulate the level of and capacity for developmental plasticity and phenotypic flexibility independent of genetic variation.

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