SICB Annual Meeting 2012
January 3-7, 2012
Charleston, SC

Symposium: The Impacts of Developmental Plasticity on Evolutionary Innovation and Diversification

Symposium Overview

Developmental plasticity - the phenomenon by which individuals respond, often adaptively, to changes in environmental conditions - has long been considered as an important facilitator of evolutionary change. Yet, the conditions that allow for developmental plasticity to promote innovation and diversification, and the proximate mechanisms influencing these effects, remain poorly understood. Recent advances, integrating both ecological and evolutionary approaches to the study of developmental biology, have begun to provide important insights into how the interactions between development and environment influence the way genotypes give rise to phenotypes in nature. Evidence emerging from a diversity of systems implicates plasticity in a variety of evolutionary processes, such as peak shifts on adaptive landscapes, the origin of novel traits, speciation and adaptive radiation.

Viewing evolution through this lens requires an integrative approach because it poses the questions: "How do specific types of environmental variation impact the developmental-genetic systems of individuals? And how do these altered patterns of development in turn relate to evolutionary changes at the population level?" A complete answer to these fundamental questions requires diverse expertise, integrating ecology, evolutionary biology, physiology and developmental genetics. In particular, recent advances in developmental genetics are rapidly improving our mechanistic understanding of how the environment alters the genotype-phenotype map, a key piece of the larger puzzle we are trying to solve. Furthermore, given the ubiquity of plasticity, investigators with expertise in the morphology, behavior and/or physiology of any organism can contribute to our discovery of any general principles underlying the impact of developmental plasticity on evolutionary outcomes. Our presenters capture this diverse array of expertise, which we anticipate will provide as broadly stimulating a symposium as possible.

Small-horned (left) and large horned (right) morphs of the dung beetle Onthophagus nigriventris. Larval nutrition dictates the morphology of the adult male, who uses his horns in combat to gain access to females. Smaller, hornless males, use a sneaker strategy to access mates. Photo by Alex Wild.

Symposium Objectives

The specific objectives of symposium contributions are to (i) highlight and synthesize the mechanisms by which developmental plasticity might contribute to evolution and (ii) feature novel empirical and conceptual approaches to the study of developmental plasticity's role in evolution. To achieve these goals, we have assembled a diverse group of researchers who study developmental plasticity and its consequences in a variety of organisms using diverse approaches. Through our symposium presentations and their associated manuscripts contributed to the Journal of Integrative and Comparative Biology, we hope to lay the foundation for a better understanding and appreciation for plasticity's contribution to organismal diversity, a fundamental challenge confronting evolutionary biologists. Ultimately, we hope to stimulate other members of our community to confront this challenge in novel ways.

Sponsors: DAB, DCE, DEDB, DEE, DPCB (formerly DSEB), DIZ, DVM


  • Matthew Wund, Department of Biology, The College of New Jersey
  • Armin Moczek,Department of Biology, Indiana University Bloomington
  • Organizing Committee:
  • Ian Dworkin, Department of Zoology, Michigan State University
  • H. Fred Nijhout, Department of Biology, Duke University
  • Cris Ledon-Rettig, Department of Integrative Biology, The University of South Florida
This photograph by Sonia Sultan shows two genetic replicates of the same highly inbred line of Polygonum cespitosum, a colonizing annual plant native to Asia. The two plants express dramatically different juvenile phenotypes as a result of growing in contrasting greenhouse environments. These developmental differences include branching architecture, relative proportions of different tissues, morphology and anatomy of organs such as roots and leaves, and reproductive timing and output.

The plant on the left was grown in dry soil and full sun conditions. It has developed multiple branches and reproductive axes, narrow leaves with thick mesophyll and cuticle, and high biomass allocation to root tissue. By contrast, the genetic replicate on the right was grown in moist soil and simulated canopy shade (i.e., reduced light intensity as well as altered spectral quality). This plant has developed a less branched, upright form with elongated internodes, large, broad leaves with thin mesophyll and cuticle, and high biomass allocation to leaf tissue, responses that maximize photosynthetic surface area despite lower total biomass.

Reference for this figure: S. E. Sultan (2010) Plant developmental responses to the environment: eco-devo insights. Current Opinion in Plant Biology, in press (doi:10.1016/j.pbi.2009.09.021)


S8-1.1 Friday, Jan. 6, 08:00 WUND, Matthew/A: Introduction to the Symposium: Assessing the Role of Developmental Plasticity in Evolutionary Innovation and Diversification

S8-1.2 Friday, Jan. 6, 08:30 LEICHTY, A. R.; PFENNIG, D. W.*; JONES, C. R.; PFENNIG, K. S.: Relaxed selection on rates of molecular evolution: consequence or cause of phenotypic plasticity?

S8-1.3 Friday, Jan. 6, 09:00 SNELL-ROOD, Emilie: Exploration in Development: implications for the costs, consequences and evolution of phenotypic plasticity

S8-1.4 Friday, Jan. 6, 10:00 NIJHOUT, H. F.: Phenotypic Plasticity and Allometry: New Models and Evolutionary Implications

S8-1.5 Friday, Jan. 6, 10:30 LEDON-RETTIG, C.C.*; PFENNIG, D.W.; CRESPI, E.J.: Phenotypic plasticity's role in the origins of novel feeding strategies

S8-1.6 Friday, Jan. 6, 11:00 MURREN, Courtney J.*; MESSERVY, Jason; STRAND, Allan E.; RUTTER, Matt T.: Plasticity and the integrated phenotype: examination of integration through development and across environments through classic and genomic approaches

S8-1.7 Friday, Jan. 6, 11:30 SULTAN, S. E. : Inherited adaptation via transgenerational plasticity: a case study in annual plants

S8-2.1 Friday, Jan. 6, 13:00 DWORKIN, Ian: Genetic Contingency: Intergrating genetic background and environment into the study of mutational effects.

S8-2.2 Friday, Jan. 6, 13:30 AMDAM, GV: The making of a social insect - Genetics of Social Design

S8-2.3 Friday, Jan. 6, 14:00 CRUICKSHANK, Tami: Evolutionary consequences of context-dependent maternal effects

S8-2.4 Friday, Jan. 6, 14:30 MOCZEK, Armin: The nature of nurture and the causes of traits: toward a comprehensive theory of developmental evolution