The flexible organism: developmental plasticity and the origins of diversity

19 June 2015

David Pfennig
Department of Biology
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill


One of biology's most significant unresolved problems is to understand how novel, complex traits originate – both developmentally and evolutionarily – and how they subsequently diversify. A growing number of biologists have begun to ask whether environmentally initiated phenotypic change – developmental plasticity – precedes, and even facilitates evolutionary innovation and diversification. However, there are few empirical tests of this "plasticity first" hypothesis. In my talk, I will discuss how we have been able to test these ideas in natural populations of spadefoot toads, which have emerged as a model system for studying developmental plasticity in the wild. I will also explore the possible genetic mechanisms by which such developmental flexibility might evolve in the first place. Generally, developmental plasticity might play a largely underappreciated role in the evolution of novel, complex traits, the evolution of species differences, and even the formation of new species.

current theory lunch schedule