Developmental Plasticity, Evolution and the Origins of Disease

Published on October 1, 2007 Reviewed on May 31, 2016   31 min

Other Talks in the Series: Evolution and Medicine

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This lecture is about the connections between developmental plasticity, evolution, and the origins of disease. My name is Mary Jane West-Eberhard, and I work for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, while living most of the time in Costa Rica. I confess that I am not a medical researcher. I am an evolutionary biologist. My research is primarily field work on the natural history and behavior of tropical social wasps.
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Observations on these exquisitely conditioned sensitive organisms led first to an interest in the origin of workers and queens.
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Which of these two forms, as developed by an individual female, is environmentally determined? From studying these, I got interested in developmental plasticity in general.
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Developmental plasticity is simply the responsiveness of the phenotype to new inputs from the external or the internal environment. It's phenotypic change without genetic change.
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The word phenotype, of course, refers to all traits of an organism other than its genes. This includes molecular products of genes, morphology, physiology, and behavior, including learned traits. It includes nervous tics, remembered phone numbers, and spots on the lung following a bout with the flu. That is, phenotypes can be adaptive or pathological, permanent or temporary, and typical or atypical of a species.
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Developmental Plasticity, Evolution and the Origins of Disease

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