Canalisation (genetics)

For other uses, see Canalisation (disambiguation).
Norms of reaction for two genotypes. Genotype B shows a strongly bimodal distribution indicating differentiation into distinct phenotypes. Each phenotype that results from genotype B is buffered against environmental variation—it is canalised.

Canalisation (or canalization) is a measure of the ability of a population to produce the same phenotype regardless of variability of its environment or genotype. In other words, it means robustness. The term canalisation was coined by C. H. Waddington, who used the word to capture the fact that "developmental reactions, as they occur in organisms submitted to natural selection...are adjusted so as to bring about one definite end-result regardless of minor variations in conditions during the course of the reaction".[1] He used this word rather than robustness to take into account that biological systems are not robust in quite the same way as, for example, engineered systems.

Biological robustness or canalisation comes about when developmental pathways are shaped by evolution. Waddington introduced the epigenetic landscape, in which the state of an organism rolls "downhill" during development. In this metaphor, a canalised trait is illustrated as a valley (which he called a creode) enclosed by high ridges, safely guiding the phenotype to its "fate". Waddington claimed that canals form in the epigenetic landscape during evolution, and that this heuristic is useful for understanding the unique qualities of biological robustness.[2]

Genetic assimilation

Waddington used the concept of canalisation to explain his experiments on genetic assimilation.[3] In these experiments, he exposed Drosophila pupae to heat shock. This environmental disturbance caused some flies to develop a crossveinless phenotype. He then selected for crossveinless. Eventually, the crossveinless phenotype appeared even without heat shock. Through this process of genetic assimilation, an environmentally induced phenotype had become inherited. Waddington explained this as the formation of a new canal in the epigenetic landscape.

It is, however, possible to explain genetic assimilation using only quantitative genetics and a threshold model, with no reference to the concept of canalisation.[4][5][6][7] However, theoretical models that incorporate a complex genotype-phenotype map have found evidence for the evolution of phenotypic robustness[8] contributing to genetic assimilation,[9] even when selection is only for developmental stability and not for a particular phenotype, and so the quantitative genetics models do not apply. These studies suggest that the canalisation heuristic may still be useful, beyond the more simple concept of robustness.

Congruence hypothesis

Neither canalisation nor robustness are simple quantities to quantify: it is always necessary to specify which trait is canalised (robust) to which perturbations. For example, perturbations can come either from the environment or from mutations. It has been suggested that different perturbations have congruent effects on development taking place on an epigenetic landscape.[10][11][12][13][14] This could, however, depend on the molecular mechanism responsible for robustness, and be different in different cases.[15]

Evolutionary capacitance

The canalisation metaphor suggests that phenotypes are very robust to small perturbations, for which development does not exit the canal, and rapidly returns down, with little effect on the final outcome of development. But perturbations whose magnitude exceeds a certain threshold will break out of the canal, moving the developmental process into uncharted territory. Strong robustness up to a limit, with little robustness beyond, is a pattern that could increase evolvability in a fluctuating environment.[16] Genetic canalisation could allow for evolutionary capacitance, where genetic diversity outside the canal accumulates in a population over time, sheltered from natural selection because it does not normally affect phenotypes. This hidden diversity could then be unleashed by extreme changes in the environment or by molecular switches, releasing previously cryptic genetic variation that can then contribute to a rapid burst of evolution.

See also


  1. Waddington CH (1942). "Canalization of development and the inheritance of acquired characters". Nature. 150 (3811): 563–565. doi:10.1038/150563a0.
  2. Waddington CH (1957). The strategy of the genes. George Allen & Unwin.
  3. Waddington CH (1953). "Genetic assimilation of an acquired character". Evolution. 7 (2): 118–126. doi:10.2307/2405747. JSTOR 2405747.
  4. Stern C (1958). "Selection for subthreshold differences and the origin of pseudoexogenous adaptations". American Naturalist. 92 (866): 313–316. doi:10.1086/282040.
  5. Bateman KG (1959). "The genetic assimilation of the dumpy phenocopy". American Naturalist. 56: 341–351. doi:10.1007/bf02984790.
  6. Scharloo W (1991). "Canalization – genetic and developmental aspects". Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics. 22: 65–93. doi:10.1146/
  7. Falconer DS, Mackay TF (1996). Introduction to Quantitative Genetics. pp. 309–310.
  8. Siegal ML, Bergman A (2002). "Waddington's canalization revisited: Developmental stability and evolution". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 99 (16): 10528–10532. doi:10.1073/pnas.102303999. PMC 124963Freely accessible. PMID 12082173.
  9. Masel J (2004). "Genetic assimilation can occur in the absence of selection for the assimilating phenotype, suggesting a role for the canalization heuristic". Journal of Evolutionary Biology. 17 (5): 1106–1110. doi:10.1111/j.1420-9101.2004.00739.x. PMID 15312082.
  10. Meiklejohn CD, Hartl DL (2002). "A single mode of canalization". Trends in Ecology & Evolution. 17 (10): e9035. doi:10.1016/S0169-5347(02)02596-X.
  11. Ancel LW, Fontana W (2000). "Plasticity, evolvability, and modularity in RNA". Journal of Experimental Zoology. 288 (3): 242–283. doi:10.1002/1097-010X(20001015)288:3<242::AID-JEZ5>3.0.CO;2-O. PMID 11069142.
  12. Szöllősi GJ, Derényi I (2009). "Congruent Evolution of Genetic and Environmental Robustness in Micro-RNA". Molecular Biology & Evolution. 26 (4): 867–874. doi:10.1093/molbev/msp008. PMID 19168567.
  13. Wagner GP, Booth G, Bagheri-Chaichian H (1997). "A population genetic theory of canalization". Evolution. 51 (2): 329–347. doi:10.2307/2411105. JSTOR 2411105.
  14. Lehner B; Lehner, Ben (2010). Polymenis, Michael, ed. "Genes Confer Similar Robustness to Environmental, Stochastic, and Genetic Perturbations in Yeast". PLoS ONE. 5 (2): 468–473. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009035. PMC 2815791Freely accessible. PMID 20140261.
  15. Masel J Siegal ML (2009). "Robustness: mechanisms and consequences". Trends in Genetics. 25 (9): 395–403. doi:10.1016/j.tig.2009.07.005. PMC 2770586Freely accessible. PMID 19717203.
  16. Eshel I, Matessi C (1998). "Canalization, genetic assimilation and preadaptation. A quantitative genetic model". Genetics. 149 (4): 2119–33. PMC 1460279Freely accessible. PMID 9691063.
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