Background: Body size is controlled by mechanisms that terminate growth when the individual reaches a species-specific size. In insects, it is a pulse of ecdysone at the end of larval life that causes the larva to stop feeding and growing and initiate metamorphosis. Body size is a quantitative trait, so it is important that the problem of control of body size be analyzed quantitatively. The processes that control the timing of ecdysone secretion in larvae of the moth Manduca sexta are sufficiently well understood that they can be described in a rigorous manner.
Results: We develop a quantitative description of the empirical data on body size determination that accurately predicts body size for diverse genetic strains. We show that body size is fully determined by three fundamental parameters: the growth rate, the critical weight (which signals the initiation of juvenile hormone breakdown), and the interval between the critical weight and the secretion of ecdysone. All three parameters are easily measured and differ between genetic strains and environmental conditions. The mathematical description we develop can be used to explain how variables such as growth rate, nutrition, and temperature affect body size.
Conclusion: Our analysis shows that there is no single locus of control of body size, but that body size is a system property that depends on interactions among the underlying determinants of the three fundamental parameters. A deeper mechanistic understanding of body size will be obtained by research aimed at uncovering the molecular mechanisms that give these three parameters their particular quantitative values.