Dynamical patterning modules: physico-genetic determinants of morphological development and evolution
The shapes and forms of multicellular organisms arise by the generation of new cell states and types and changes in the numbers and rearrangements of the various kinds of cells. While morphogenesis and pattern formation in all animal species are widely recognized to be mediated by the gene products of an evolutionarily conserved 'developmental-genetic toolkit', the link between these molecular players and the physics underlying these processes has been generally ignored. This paper introduces the concept of 'dynamical patterning modules' (DPMs), units consisting of one or more products of the 'toolkit' genes that mobilize physical processes characteristic of chemically and mechanically excitable meso- to macroscopic systems such as cell aggregates: cohesion, viscoelasticity, diffusion, spatiotemporal heterogeneity based on lateral inhibition and multistable and oscillatory dynamics. We suggest that ancient toolkit gene products, most predating the emergence of multicellularity, assumed novel morphogenetic functions due to change in the scale and context inherent to multicellularity. We show that DPMs, acting individually and in concert with each other, constitute a 'pattern language' capable of generating all metazoan body plans and organ forms. The physical dimension of developmental causation implies that multicellular forms during the explosive radiation of animal body plans in the middle Cambrian, approximately 530 million years ago, could have explored an extensive morphospace without concomitant genotypic change or selection for adaptation. The morphologically plastic body plans and organ forms generated by DPMs, and their ontogenetic trajectories, would subsequently have been stabilized and consolidated by natural selection and genetic drift. This perspective also solves the apparent 'molecular homology-analogy paradox', whereby widely divergent modern animal types utilize the same molecular toolkit during development by proposing, in contrast to the Neo-Darwinian principle, that phenotypic disparity early in evolution occurred in advance of, rather than closely tracked, genotypic change.