The developmental genetics of biological robustness

Ann Bot. 2016 Apr;117(5):699-707. doi: 10.1093/aob/mcv128. Epub 2015 Aug 20.


Background: Living organisms are continuously confronted with perturbations, such as environmental changes that include fluctuations in temperature and nutrient availability, or genetic changes such as mutations. While some developmental systems are affected by such challenges and display variation in phenotypic traits, others continue consistently to produce invariable phenotypes despite perturbation. This ability of a living system to maintain an invariable phenotype in the face of perturbations is termed developmental robustness. Biological robustness is a phenomenon observed across phyla, and studying its mechanisms is central to deciphering the genotype-phenotype relationship. Recent work in yeast, animals and plants has shown that robustness is genetically controlled and has started to reveal the underlying mechinisms behind it.

Scope and conclusions: Studying biological robustness involves focusing on an important property of developmental traits, which is the phenotypic distribution within a population. This is often neglected because the vast majority of developmental biology studies instead focus on population aggregates, such as trait averages. By drawing on findings in animals and yeast, this Viewpoint considers how studies on plant developmental robustness may benefit from strict definitions of what is the developmental system of choice and what is the relevant perturbation, and also from clear distinctions between gene effects on the trait mean and the trait variance. Recent advances in quantitative developmental biology and high-throughput phenotyping now allow the design of targeted genetic screens to identify genes that amplify or restrict developmental trait variance and to study how variation propagates across different phenotypic levels in biological systems. The molecular characterization of more quantitative trait loci affecting trait variance will provide further insights into the evolution of genes modulating developmental robustness. The study of robustness mechanisms in closely related species will address whether mechanisms of robustness are evolutionarily conserved.

Keywords: Developmental robustness; buffering.; canalization; cryptic genetic variation; genotype × phenotype; insensitivity; perturbation; plasticity; sensitivity; species diversity; variance.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biodiversity
  • Biological Evolution
  • Developmental Biology / methods*
  • Female
  • Genetic Variation
  • Nematoda / genetics
  • Nematoda / growth & development
  • Phenotype
  • Plant Development / genetics*
  • Plants / genetics
  • Quantitative Trait Loci*
  • Vulva / growth & development
  • Yeasts / genetics
  • Yeasts / growth & development