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Plasticity and Evolution

Evolutionary Biology
Organisms are inherently responsive to their environment. They need to be to develop and maintain biological functions. We study how environmental responsiveness evolves and – once it has evolved – how this affects the capacity for organisms to undergo future evolution.

Three small animal embryos photographed through a microscope.

Phenotypic plasticity is everywhere. But when will it be the best solution, what should the response be like, and how long should individuals stay open to environmental influence? Plasticity may also affect the capacity of populations to evolve since it influences the phenotypic variation exposed to selection. To understand the evolutionary implications of plasticity it is often useful to think of phenotypes in terms of regulatory developmental systems. This allows us to study how environmental control evolves, and how this influences how accessible new phenotypic variants are through mutation.

One prediction is that plastic responses – as a form of developmental bias – can direct adaptive evolution along particular trajectories. This, in turn, may influence what adaptive solutions will look like, and therefore evolutionary convergence and divergence. We test these predictions using a range of methods, from comparative analyses to experimental studies of lizards and other organisms.

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English, S., Fawcett, T.W., Higginson, A.D., Trimmer, P. & Uller, T. 2016. Adaptive use of information during growth can explain long-term effects of early-life experiences. American Naturalist 187:620-632.

Laland, K.L., Uller, T, Feldman, M., Sterelny, K., Müller, G.B., Moczek, A., Jablonka, E. & Odling-Smee, J. 2015. The extended evolutionary synthesis: its structure, core assumptions, and predictions. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 282: 20151019.

Pen, I., Uller, T., Feldmeyer, B., Harts, A., While, G. M. & Wapstra, E. 2010. Climate-driven population divergence in sex-determining systems. Nature 468: 436-439

Badyaev, A. V & Uller, T. 2009. Parental effects in ecology and evolution: Mechanisms, processes, and implications. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 364: 1169-1177.