Developmental Niche Construction: an integrative conceptual framework for inheritance mechanisms

After long being marginalized, a diverse but disintegrated field in the life sciences has now started to investigate developmental responses to the environment during an organism’s lifetime and their potential evolutionary significance. A unified conceptual framework is needed to integrate these diverse findings. This research will develop such a framework – developmental niche construction – by elucidating how the discovered mechanisms contribute to the transgenerational transfer of essential developmental resources from the biological to the cognitive. Methods will be the critical analysis and synthesis of the literature and the constructive engagements with scientists through participating observation and collaboration.

The project will contribute to a diverse set of aims: the integration of different approaches to and conceptions of ‘soft’ inheritance; an analysis of the causal interaction between genetic, epigenetic and exogenetic factors during development, particularly neural development; an exploration of the overall significance of these new developments in the life sciences; a reconciliation of the concepts of fixity or canalization with plasticity and diversity in development; and an advancement of the ongoing integration of development, heredity, ecology, and evolution. The significance of the project lies in its contribution to solving several, related problems, some of which go as far back as Aristotle’s biology, and most of which have eluded a satisfactory solution. These problems are: a) a complete theory of the origination and modification of biological form; b) the genotype-phenotype relationship; c) the nature-nurture controversy in its ill-formulated opposition of innate versus acquired; d) the application of maternal and paternal effects research to humans; e) the enculturation of the human brain and f), the interconnection between physiological, psychological, cognitive and social development.

A first step towards the aims of the project will be the development of a conceptual framework for such unification. The project introduces the concept of the developmental niche that makes available those essential developmental resources that go beyond pure the genome and which is actively co-constructed by the parental and offspring generations. Developmental niche construction constitutes a wider developmental-evolutionary framework in which to situate diverse phenomena of developmental plasticity and inheritance, interpreted as the reliable transgenerational transfer of developmental resources that together reconstruct the developmental niche necessary for species-typical development.

A second step will use this framework for a critical and in-depth comparison between the modes of transmission of different developmental factors and how they differ in their causal influences on the phenotype. Part of this research will take part during the three lab residencies

A third step will build on this framework for an analysis of the interaction between genetic, epigenetic and exogenetic factors in physiological, morphological, psychological, and behavioural development, and explores the consequences of these interactions for our understanding of evolution.

A fourth step will apply this framework and its extended analyses to human development and evolution. Taking seriously the extended inheritance of developmental resources may help to counteract their impact predisposing the fetus - and possible later generations - to ill health in later life. It also offers brain science a robust understanding of how enculturation leads to observable differences in brain architecture and function.

Research Team:
Karola Stotz