On the origins of novelty in development and evolution

Bioessays. 2008 May;30(5):432-47. doi: 10.1002/bies.20754.


The origin of novel traits is what draws many to evolutionary biology, yet our understanding of the mechanisms that underlie the genesis of novelty remains limited. Here I review definitions of novelty including its relationship to homology. I then discuss how ontogenetic perspectives may allow us to move beyond current roadblocks in our understanding of the mechanics of innovation. Specifically, I explore the roles of canalization, plasticity and threshold responses during development in generating a reservoir of cryptic genetic variation free to drift and accumulate in natural populations. Environmental or genetic perturbations that exceed the buffering capacity of development can then release this variation, and, through evolution by genetic accommodation, result in rapid diversification, recurrence of lost phenotypes as well as the origins of novel features. I conclude that, in our quest to understand the nature of innovation, the nature of development deserves to take center stage.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Developmental Biology
  • Female
  • Growth and Development*
  • Insecta / genetics
  • Insecta / growth & development
  • Insecta / physiology
  • Male
  • Models, Biological
  • Phenotype
  • Selection, Genetic
  • Whales / growth & development
  • Whales / physiology