A model for development and evolution of complex morphological structures

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 1991 May;66(2):101-57. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-185x.1991.tb01138.x.


How 'complex' or composite morphological structures like the mammalian craniomandibular region arise during development and how they are altered during evolution are two major unresolved questions in biology. Herein, we have described a model for the development and evolution of complex morphological structures. The model assumes that natural selection acts upon an array of phenotypes generated by variation in a variety of underlying genetic and epigenetic controlling factors. Selection refines the integration of the various morphogenetic components during ontogeny in order to produce a functioning structure and to adapt the organisms to differing patterns of environmental heterogeneity. The model was applied to the development and evolution of the mammalian mandible (which is used as a paradigm of complex morphological structures). The embryology of the mandible was examined in detail in order to identify the fundamental developmental units which are necessary to assemble the final morphological structure. The model is quite general since equivalent units exist for the development of many other biological structures. This model could be applied to many other developing morphological structures as well as other groups of organisms. For example, it can be applied to cell parameters during Drosophila development (Atchley, 1987). The model as discussed in this paper assumes that morphological changes in the mandible result from evolutionary changes in its underlying developmental units. The developmental units relate to characteristics of cellular condensations which are produced from the differentiation of embryonic neural crest cells. The developmental units include: the number of stem cells in preskeletal condensations (n), the time of initiation of condensation formation (t), the fraction of cells that is mitotically active within a condensation (f), the rate of division of these cells (r), and their rate of cell death (d). These units and their derivative structures are discussed in terms of types of tissue differentiation (chondrogenesis, osteogenesis, primary/secondary osteogenesis, intramembranous/endochondral ossification) and growth properties of major morphological regions of the mandible. Variation in these five units provides the developmental basis for ontogenetic and phylogenetic modification of mandibular morphology. We have discussed how these developmental units are influenced by (a) the cell lineage from which they arise, (b) epithelial-mesenchymal (inductive tissue) interactions, (c) regulation of cell differentiation, and (d) extrinsic factors such as muscles, teeth and hormones. Evidence was provided that variation in mandibular morphology is heritable, subject to modification by natural selection, and that divergence among different genetic stocks has apparently occurred through changes in these developmental units and their derivative structures.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Genetic Variation
  • Mandible / embryology*
  • Models, Biological*
  • Models, Genetic