A computational model of teeth and the developmental origins of morphological variation

Nature. 2010 Mar 25;464(7288):583-6. doi: 10.1038/nature08838. Epub 2010 Mar 10.


The relationship between the genotype and the phenotype, or the genotype-phenotype map, is generally approached with the tools of multivariate quantitative genetics and morphometrics. Whereas studies of development and mathematical models of development may offer new insights into the genotype-phenotype map, the challenge is to make them useful at the level of microevolution. Here we report a computational model of mammalian tooth development that combines parameters of genetic and cellular interactions to produce a three-dimensional tooth from a simple tooth primordia. We systematically tinkered with each of the model parameters to generate phenotypic variation and used geometric morphometric analyses to identify, or developmentally ordinate, parameters best explaining population-level variation of real teeth. To model the full range of developmentally possible morphologies, we used a population sample of ringed seals (Phoca hispida ladogensis). Seal dentitions show a high degree of variation, typically linked to the lack of exact occlusion. Our model suggests that despite the complexity of development and teeth, there may be a simple basis for dental variation. Changes in single parameters regulating signalling during cusp development may explain shape variation among individuals, whereas a parameter regulating epithelial growth may explain serial, tooth-to-tooth variation along the jaw. Our study provides a step towards integrating the genotype, development and the phenotype.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Gene Regulatory Networks / genetics
  • Genotype
  • Models, Biological*
  • Phenotype
  • Phoca* / anatomy & histology
  • Phoca* / genetics
  • Phoca* / growth & development
  • Signal Transduction
  • Tooth / anatomy & histology*
  • Tooth / growth & development
  • Tooth / physiology*