Of plasticity and specificity: dialectics of the microenvironment and macroenvironment and the organ phenotype

Wiley Interdiscip Rev Dev Biol. Mar-Apr 2014;3(2):147-63. doi: 10.1002/wdev.130. Epub 2013 Nov 18.


The study of biological form and how it arises is the domain of the developmental biologists; but once the form is achieved, the organ poses a fascinating conundrum for all the life scientists: how are form and function maintained in adult organs throughout most of the life of the organism? That they do appears to contradict the inherently plastic nature of organogenesis during development. How do cells with the same genetic information arrive at, and maintain such different architectures and functions, and how do they keep remembering that they are different from each other? It is now clear that narratives based solely on genes and an irreversible regulatory dynamics cannot answer these questions satisfactorily, and the concept of microenvironmental signaling needs to be added to the equation. During development, cells rearrange and differentiate in response to diffusive morphogens, juxtacrine signals, and the extracellular matrix (ECM). These components, which constitute the modular microenvironment, are sensitive to cues from other tissues and organs of the developing embryo as well as from the external macroenvironment. On the other hand, once the organ is formed, these modular constituents integrate and constrain the organ architecture, which ensures structural and functional homeostasis and therefore, organ specificity. We argue here that a corollary of the above is that once the organ architecture is compromised in adults by mutations or by changes in the microenvironment such as aging or inflammation, that organ becomes subjected to the developmental and embryonic circuits in search of a new identity. But since the microenvironment is no longer embryonic, the confusion leads to cancer: hence as we have argued, tumors become new evolutionary organs perhaps in search of an elusive homeostasis.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Differentiation*
  • Gene-Environment Interaction*
  • Humans
  • Organogenesis*
  • Systems Biology
  • Tumor Microenvironment