Ecological Developmental Biology: Integrating Epigenetics, Medicine, and Evolution

Scott F. Gilbert, University of Helsinki and Swarthmore College and David Epel, Stanford University
Scott F. Gilbert, University of Helsinki and Swarthmore College and David Epel, Stanford University

Ecological Developmental Biology: Integrating Epigenetics, Medicine, and Evolution

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When the molecular processes of epigenetics meet the ecological processes of phenotypic plasticity, the result is a revolutionary new field: ecological developmental biology, or “eco-devo.” This new science studies development in the “real world” of predators, pathogens, competitors, symbionts, toxic compounds, temperature changes, and nutritional differences. These environmental agents can result in changes to an...

When the molecular processes of epigenetics meet the ecological processes of phenotypic plasticity, the result is a revolutionary new field: ecological developmental biology, or “eco-devo.” This new science studies development in the “real world” of predators, pathogens, competitors, symbionts, toxic compounds, temperature changes, and nutritional differences. These environmental agents can result in changes to an individual’s phenotype, often implemented when signals from the environment elicit epigenetic changes in gene expression. Ecological developmental biology is a truly integrative biology, detailing the interactions between developing organisms and their environmental contexts.

Ecological developmental biology also provides a systems approach to the study of pathology, integrating the studies of diabetes, cancers, obesity, and the aging syndrome into the framework of an ecologically sensitive developmental biology. It looks at examples where the environment provides expected cues for normal development and where the organism develops improperly without such cues. Data from research on teratology, endocrine disruptors, and microbial symbioses, when integrated into a developmental context, may have enormous implications for human health as well as the overall health of Earth’s ecosystems.

The study of epigenetics—changes in gene expression that are not the result of changes in a gene’s DNA sequence—has recently provided startling insights not only into mechanisms of development, but also into the mechanisms and processes of evolution. The notion that epialleles (changes in chromosome structure that alter gene expression) can be induced by environmental agents and transmitted across generations has altered our notions of evolution, as have new experiments documenting the genetic fixation of environmentally induced changes in development. The widespread use of symbiosis in development provides new targets for natural selection. Ecological developmental biology integrates these new ideas into an extended evolutionary synthesis that retains and enriches the notion of evolution by natural selection.

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Scott F. Gilbert, the Finland Distinguished Professor at the University of Helsinki Institute of Biotechnology and a Senior Research Associate at Swarthmore College, teaches developmental biology, developmental genetics, and the history of biology. After receiving his B.A. from Wesleyan University, he pursued his graduate and postdoctoral research at The Johns Hopkins University and the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Gilbert is the recipient of several awards, including the first Viktor Hamburger Award for excellence in developmental biology education, the 2004 Alexander Kowalevsky Prize for evolutionary developmental biology, honorary degrees from the Universities of Helsinki and Tartu, and the Medal of François I from the Collège de France. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a corresponding member of the St. Petersburg Society of Naturalists, and has been chair of the Professional Development and Education Committee of the Society for Developmental Biology. His research pursues the developmental genetic mechanisms by which the turtle forms its shell.

David Epel, the Jane and Marshall Steel Jr. Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station, did his undergraduate studies at Wayne University and then graduate and postdoctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Epel has been a Guggenheim Fellow, is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the California Academy of Sciences, and an Overseas Fellow of Churchill College and Life Fellow of Clare Hall at the University of Cambridge. His honors include the Cox Medal for Fostering Undergraduate Research at Stanford and the Ed Ricketts Memorial Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Marine Sciences. Epel’s research focuses on the activation of the egg at fertilization, the unique physiology of the embryo, and developing web sites and curricula highlighting early development of the sea urchin embryo to capture the imagination and interest of high school students.

Ecological Developmental Biology by Scott F. Gilbert and David Epel is a tremendous achievement of integration. … In an era in which research is advancing too fast for textbooks to keep up and the Internet is often a more convenient source of basic information, this book serves a unique role in providing the most recent information in a format that will encourage independent exploration of the primary literature and critical discussion of the authors' ideas.”
—Callen Hyland, The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine

“Gilbert and Epel's work contains a wealth of fascinating information about the biological world, described in a crystal-clear and engaging writing style and with informative, aesthetic figures. This, together with its clear and comprehensive structure, makes the book a didactic masterpiece. … Read it and be inspired! Highly conceptual, thought-provoking and beautiful—this is biology at its best.”
—Christine Hassler, Lab Times

“Gilbert and Epel have done a masterful job summarizing a large and scattered body of research on the direct roles of environmental factors in animal and plant development, and highlighting their underappreciated importance in human health and disease. At the same time, the authors remind biologists of the integrative and inclusive nature of evolutionary biology by outlining its history of syntheses, oversights, and additions. They finish with arguments for restoring organism development as a core concept of evolutionary biology and embracing several environment-based mechanisms of diversification as key players. … EDB is a compelling argument for the direction of the next major growth phase of evolutionary biology, and reading it made me happy to be in such a fresh, rich, and dynamic science.”
—Christopher S. Rose, Ecology

“Brilliantly conceived and executed … I applaud Gilbert and Epel for so clearly showing the rapid methodological and theoretical changes in developmental biology and the corresponding impact on evolutionary theory. Their portrait of these contemporary sciences signifies an important movement of the conceptual parameters by which all biologists might reconsider their governing concepts, teach their science, and practice their craft.”
—Alfred I. Tauber, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine

“Gilbert and Epel's book will no doubt become an important part of this developing evolutionary synthesis, and should be on the bookshelf of every evolutionary and developmental biologist.”
—Ehab Abouheif and Hans Larsson, Evolution & Development

“Gilbert and Epel have produced a book that is enormously thoughtful on a number of levels. I marvel at their capacity to integrate so much information and so many ideas lucidly, succinctly and engagingly. … I urge biologists who relish the challenge of new ideas to read this book with care, to use it in courses and seminars, and to discuss with colleagues how to collectively participate in the new biology. Gilbert and Epel have given us a magnificent road map to the healthy future of biology and of life.”
—Marvalee H. Wake, American Scientist

“Developing a single framework to understand how an organism develops by bringing together numerous disciplines and integrating across multiple levels of organization is a very daunting task to say the least. Differences in language, methodologies, levels of organization, and ways of thinking present significant barriers. Ecological Developmental Biology: Integrating Epigenetics, Medicine and Evolution is a superb step toward overcoming the barriers that have prevented this goal from being reached. … Gilbert and Epel's writing style is engaging … The figures are superb, characteristic of books from Sinauer Press: they are esthetically pleasing, with just enough information to get the point across without seeming cluttered. … The book is remarkable in its scope, drawing from a dizzying array of research areas … Only by integrating these fields in a systems-level framework can one understand how organisms develop in response to ecological and evolutionary selection. This book offers such a framework.”
—Goggy Davidowitz, Integrative and Comparative Biology

“… I want to make the case in this review for why philosophers, theologians, bioethicists, environmentalists, and evolutionary psychologists should be required to read this book. Anyone who purports to teach and interpret evolution and genetics to the public should read this remarkable book. Indeed, policy-makers and homemakers will find much relevant to public health and safety in these pages.”
—William Grassie, The Global Spiral, a publication of the Metanexus Institute

“The book covers vast territory, describing how the environment can influence everything from cancer in humans, to wing patterns in butterflies, to sex determination in turtles. Yet, despite the broad scope, the writing is synthetic, and the authors use clear, simple, and accessible language with beautiful, colorful, and informative illustrations throughout.… this is a must-read for graduate students interested in integrating ecology, developmental biology, and evolutionary biology.”
—Antónia Monteiro, Cell

“These are propitious and exciting times for integrating the fields of development, ecology, and evolution. Students and researchers are fortunate that (in addition to the present volume) several important books have appeared recently …. Nevertheless, we have only begun to construct an integrated framework. Gilbert and Epel acknowledge the arduous task ahead and ‘hope that college students, still relatively undifferentiated, will come up with their own connections and syntheses and that they will see patterns that we haven't yet imagined.’ Ecological Developmental Biology will serve as an excellent guide for those interested in embarking on such a synthesis. More generally, this lucid and thought-provoking book should appeal to anyone interested in understanding how organisms are built, function, and evolve or how anthropogenic environmental change affects the health of ourselves and other organisms.”
—David W. Pfennig and Chris Ledón-Rettig, Science

“The appearance of a textbook is often the culmination of a long process moving a subject from the fringes to the center of a discipline, or perhaps the coalescence of a discipline. Ecological Developmental Biology is such a milestone.”
—Samuel M. Scheiner, Evolution

“Gilbert and Epel are to be commended for this excellent collection of material and their effort to integrate that material into a new discipline. A very worthwhile endeavor.”
—F. W. Yow, Choice

“Overall, a masterful synthesis! It's one of those things that makes one say, ‘Damn, I wish I had written that!’”
—Fred Nijhout, Duke University

“A unique, thought-provoking, and clearly written treatment, at the molecular level, of the environment's influence on embryonic development and the paths of evolutionary change.”
—John Gerhart, University of California, Berkeley

“This is an incredible piece of work, and something that is sorely needed, right now.”
—Mary Tyler, University of Maine

“This is an extraordinary work … first-class conceptually and pedagogically.”
—John Beatty, University of British Columbia

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