Ecological Development Biology

  1. Scott F Gilbert

Published Online: 15 DEC 2009

DOI: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0020479



How to Cite

Gilbert, S. F. 2009. Ecological Development Biology. eLS. .

Author Information

  1. Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, USA

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 15 DEC 2009


Ecological developmental biology concerns the interactions between developing organisms and their environmental contexts. It studies development in the ‘real world’ of predators, competitors, symbionts, toxic compounds, temperature changes and nutritional differences. The environment plays a substantial role in development, and in many instances, normal development cannot occur without environmental signalling. Symbionts, for instance, are needed in many organisms for the development of particular organs. Environmental agents can elicit epigenetic changes in gene expression that can change an organism's phenotype. In many instances, however, substances in the environment of developing organisms can act detrimentally, causing birth defects and predisposing the organism to diseases in adulthood (see Gilbert SF, 2001). Epigenetics has recently provided startling insights into how compounds experienced during embryonic development can predispose one to cancer, obesity, hypertension and diabetes later in life.

Key concepts:

  • The environment plays critical roles during normal development.

  • The genome encodes a repetoire of possible phenotypes. Environment often selects which of those phenotypes will become expressed.

  • Reaction norms are phenotypes that quantitatively respond to environmental conditions, such that the phenotype reflects small differences in the environmental conditions.

  • Polyphenisms represent ‘either/or’ phenotypes wherein one set of conditions elicits one phenotype while another set of conditions elicits another.

  • Organisms usually develop with symbiotic organisms; and often signals from the symbionts are critical for normal development.

  • Teratogens (such as ethanol) are compounds that can cause birth defects by disrupting normal development.

  • Endocrine disruptors are compounds in the environment that can disrupt normal development by changing gene expression in ways that are not seen phenotypically for years after birth.

  • Ecological developmental biology provides the mechanisms for new types of variations that can lead to selection. These include epialleles (inherited patterns of chromatin alterations giving inherited variants of gene expression patterns), and plasticity-driven adaptation.


  • ecological developmental biology;
  • symbiosis;
  • epigenetics;
  • teratogens;
  • plasticity