Plasticity and errors of a robust developmental system in different environments

Dev Cell. 2008 Nov;15(5):714-24. doi: 10.1016/j.devcel.2008.09.011.


Many developmental processes generate invariant phenotypes in a wide range of ecological conditions. Such robustness to environmental variation is a fundamental biological property, yet its extent, limits, and adaptive significance have rarely been assessed empirically. Here we tested how environmental variation affects vulval formation in Caenorhabditis nematodes. In different environments, a correct vulval pattern develops with high precision, but rare deviant patterns reveal the system's limits and how its mechanisms respond to environmental challenges. Key features of the apparent robustness are functional redundancy among vulval precursor cells and tolerance to quantitative variation in Ras, Notch, and Wnt pathway activities. The observed environmental responses and precision of vulval patterning vary within and between Caenorhabditis species. These results highlight the complex response of developmental systems to the environment and illustrate how a robust and invariant phenotype may result through cellular and molecular processes that are highly plastic--across environments and evolution.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Body Patterning*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / cytology*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / embryology*
  • Environment
  • Female
  • Signal Transduction
  • Vulva / embryology