Canalization: A molecular genetic perspective



The phenomenon of ‘canalization’ - the genetic capacity to buffer developmental pathways against mutational or environmental perturbations - was first characterized in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Despite enormous subsequent progress in understanding the nature of the genetic material and the molecular basis of gene expression, there have been few attempts to interpret the classical work on canalization in molecular genetic terms. Some recent findings, however, bear on one form of canalization, ‘genetic canalization’, the stabilization of development against mutational effects. These data indicate that co-expressed paralogous genes can function as mutual ‘back-up’ elements in developmental processes. Paralogues, however, are far from the only basis of canalization: other genetic sources can be readily envisaged and some of these are described here. The evolutionary questions about genetic canalization and the mechanistic questions about developmental instability that still need to be addressed are also briefly discussed.