The developmental-genetics of canalization

Benedikt Hallgrimsson, Rebecca M. Green, David C. Katz, Jennifer L. Fish, Francois P. Bernier, Charles C. Roseman, Nathan M. Young, James M. Cheverud, Ralph S. Marcucio

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Canalization, or robustness to genetic or environmental perturbations, is fundamental to complex organisms. While there is strong evidence for canalization as an evolved property that varies among genotypes, the developmental and genetic mechanisms that produce this phenomenon are very poorly understood. For evolutionary biology, understanding how canalization arises is important because, by modulating the phenotypic variation that arises in response to genetic differences, canalization is a determinant of evolvability. For genetics of disease in humans and for economically important traits in agriculture, this subject is important because canalization is a potentially significant cause of missing heritability that confounds genomic prediction of phenotypes. We review the major lines of thought on the developmental-genetic basis for canalization. These fall into two groups. One proposes specific evolved molecular mechanisms while the other deals with robustness or canalization as a more general feature of development. These explanations for canalization are not mutually exclusive and they overlap in several ways. General explanations for canalization are more likely to involve emergent features of development than specific molecular mechanisms. Disentangling these explanations is also complicated by differences in perspectives between genetics and developmental biology. Understanding canalization at a mechanistic level will require conceptual and methodological approaches that integrate quantitative genetics and developmental biology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)67-79
Number of pages13
JournalSeminars in Cell and Developmental Biology
StatePublished - Apr 2019


  • Canalization
  • Epistasis
  • Genotype-phenotype maps
  • Nonlinearity
  • Robustness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental Biology
  • Cell Biology


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