The molecular and mathematical basis of Waddington's epigenetic landscape: A framework for post-Darwinian biology?



The Neo-Darwinian concept of natural selection is plausible when one assumes a straightforward causation of phenotype by genotype. However, such simple 1:1 mapping must now give place to the modern concepts of gene regulatory networks and gene expression noise. Both can, in the absence of genetic mutations, jointly generate a diversity of inheritable randomly occupied phenotypic states that could also serve as a substrate for natural selection. This form of epigenetic dynamics challenges Neo-Darwinism. It needs to incorporate the non-linear, stochastic dynamics of gene networks. A first step is to consider the mathematical correspondence between gene regulatory networks and Waddington's metaphoric ‘epigenetic landscape’, which actually represents the quasi-potential function of global network dynamics. It explains the coexistence of multiple stable phenotypes within one genotype. The landscape's topography with its attractors is shaped by evolution through mutational re-wiring of regulatory interactions – offering a link between genetic mutation and sudden, broad evolutionary changes.