The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)

The middle-out approach and evolutionary inference from studies of model organisms


1Cell Biology & Anatomy, University of Calgary, 2McCaig Instute for Bone and Joint Health, University of Calgary, 3Alberta Children's Hospital Foundation for Child and Maternal Health, University of Calgary, 43Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, University of California San Francisco

Friday 3:45-4:00, Galleria South Add to calendar

Understanding of the developmental basis for phenotypic variation is important for evolutionary explanation in several ways. Most critically, development biology offers potential insight into the evolvability of organisms in various directions of phenotype-space. The intensive study of model organisms is the only known route to unraveling the complexities of developmental systems. The difficulty, however, is that these are usually not the organisms whose evolution we are seeking to explain. Inference from model organisms to the evolutionary explanation in other groups is thus not straightforward. A key question here is choosing the level of abstraction that allows for useful application of information about model organisms to the evolution of other, related groups. Using the example of the shape of the human skull and brain-face interaction as studied in mouse and chick, we discuss the utility of inference at the gene, gene network and developmental process level. We show that useful insight can be gained when the correct level of abstraction is chosen while highly misleading inferences can be made when this is not done. We argue that the study of model organisms, which has a surprisingly rich history in biological anthropology, is a necessary adjunct to the more mainstream areas of human evolutionary studies.

This work is supported by grants from NIH-NIDCR to BH and RM and NSERC to BH.

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