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The Comet Cometh: Evolving Developmental Systems

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In a recent opinion piece, Denis Duboule has claimed that the increasing shift towards systems biology is driving evolutionary and developmental biology apart, and that a true reunification of these

In a recent opinion piece, Denis Duboule has claimed that the increasing shift towards systems biology is driving evolutionary and developmental biology apart, and that a true reunification of these two disciplines within the framework of evolutionary developmental biology (EvoDevo) may easily take another 100 years. He identifies methodological, epistemological, and social differences as causes for this supposed separation. Our article provides a contrasting view. We argue that Duboule’s prediction is based on a one-sided understanding of systems biology as a science that is only interested in functional, not evolutionary, aspects of biological processes. Instead, we propose a research program for an evolutionary systems biology, which is based on local exploration of the configuration space in evolving developmental systems. We call this approach—which is based on reverse engineering, simulation, and mathematical analysis—the natural history of configuration space. We discuss a number of illustrative examples that demonstrate the past success of local exploration, as opposed to global mapping, in different biological contexts. We argue that this pragmatic mode of inquiry can be extended and applied to the mathematical analysis of the developmental repertoire and evolutionary potential of evolving developmental mechanisms and that evolutionary systems biology so conceived provides a pragmatic epistemological framework for the EvoDevo synthesis.

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  • 2015-02-17