Agency in
Living Systems

How organisms actively generate adaptation, resilience and innovation at multiple levels of organization

Our understanding of living systems has been confined by a view of organisms as passive by-products of mutation and selection. We are working to develop a fundamentally different view by answering two questions:

Do biological mechanisms allow organisms to be active agents in the construction of their own novel, adaptive features and resilience to challenges?

How might a scientific theory of agency be built, since existing theories treat organisms as objects?

Agency in
Living Systems

How organisms actively generate adaptation, resilience and innovation at multiple levels of organization

Our understanding of living systems has been confined by a view of organisms as passive by-products of mutation and selection. We are working to develop a fundamentally different view by answering two questions:

Do biological mechanisms allow organisms to be active agents in the construction of their own novel, adaptive features and resilience to challenges?

How might a scientific theory of agency be built, since existing theories treat organisms as objects?

Our Members

Our team of four internationally recognized experts are investigating the mechanisms of organismal agency across levels of biological organization (gene networks, Moczek; cells and tissues, Jernvall; individuals, Sultan; social colonies, Gordon) and diverse taxa (mammals: Jernvall; insects: Gordon, Moczek; plants: Sultan).

A team of philosophers of science led by co-investigator Walsh, in collaboration with Moczek, Sultan, Jernvall and Gordon, will advance the development of a scientific theory of agency in living systems.

Moczek Lab

We are interested in the ecological, developmental, and genetic mechanisms, and the interactions between them, that enable and channel evolutionary innovation and diversification.

Sultan Lab

We study individual developmental plasticity in response to key environmental factors, using field-sourced genotypes of annual plants as an experimental system.

Gordon Lab

We examine how ant colonies work without central control using networks of simple interactions, and how these networks evolve in relation to changing environments.

Jernvall Lab

Our research focus is on the phenotype and factors affecting its evolution. For most projects, we use the mammalian dentition that offers a rich array of interrelated data on development, function, and evolutionary history.

Walsh Group

In recent years my research has concentrated on the concept of natural agency. A natural agent, on this view, is any system that can maintain its viability, react and innovate, by mounting adaptive responses to its conditions.

Our Members

Our team of four internationally recognized experts are investigating the mechanisms of organismal agency across levels of biological organization (gene networks, Moczek; cells and tissues, Jernvall; individuals, Sultan; social colonies, Gordon) and diverse taxa (mammals: Jernvall; insects: Gordon, Moczek; plants: Sultan).

A team of philosophers of science led by co-investigator Walsh, in collaboration with Moczek, Sultan, Jernvall and Gordon, will advance the development of a scientific theory of agency in living systems.

Moczek Lab

We are interested in the ecological, developmental, and genetic mechanisms, and the interactions between them, that enable and channel evolutionary innovation and diversification.

Sultan Lab

We study individual developmental plasticity in response to key environmental factors, using field-sourced genotypes of annual plants as an experimental system.

Gordon Lab

We examine how ant colonies work without central control using networks of simple interactions, and how these networks evolve in relation to changing environments.

Jernvall Lab

Our research focus is on the phenotype and factors affecting its evolution. For most projects, we use the mammalian dentition that offers a rich array of interrelated data on development, function, and evolutionary history.

Walsh Group

In recent years my research has concentrated on the concept of natural agency. A natural agent, on this view, is any system that can maintain its viability, react and innovate, by mounting adaptive responses to its conditions.

The Project

Identify Mechanisms

To identify the mechanisms that may allow organisms to be active agents in the construction of their own novel, adaptive features and resilience to challenges.

Encompass Diversity

To assess organismal agency broadly across diverse organisms, from mammals to insects and plants.

Examine Levels of Organization

To determine the scope and impact of agency across diverse levels of biological organization, from gene networks to cells, organs, individuals and social groups.

Build a Rigorous Theory

To develop a scientific theory of organisms as purposive agents and determine the explanatory concepts and structure of an agent theory in relation to conventional scientific object theories.

The Project

Identify Mechanisms

To identify the mechanisms that may allow organisms to be active agents in the construction of their own novel, adaptive features and resilience to challenges.

Encompass Diversity

To assess organismal agency broadly across diverse organisms, from mammals to insects and plants.

Examine Levels of Organization

To determine the scope and impact of agency across diverse levels of biological organization, from gene networks to cells, organs, individuals and social groups.

Build a Rigorous Theory

To develop a scientific theory of organisms as purposive agents and determine the explanatory concepts and structure of an agent theory in relation to conventional scientific object theories.

Project Publications

Rapid differentiation of plasticity in life history and morphology during invasive range expansion and concurrent local adaptation in the horned beetle Onthophagus taurus (2020)

Rapid differentiation of plasticity in life history and morphology during invasive range expansion and concurrent local adaptation in the horned beetle Onthophagus taurus (2020)

Understanding the interplay between genetic differentiation, ancestral plasticity, and the evolution of plasticity during adaptation to environmental variation is critical to predict populations’ responses to environmental change. However, the role of plasticity in rapid adaptation in nature remains poorly understood. We here use the invasion of the horned beetle Onthophagus taurus in the United States during the last half century to study the contribution of ancestral plasticity and post-invasion evolution of plastic responses in rapid population differentiation. We document latitudinal variation in life history and morphology, including genetic compensation in development time and body size, likely adaptive responses to seasonal constraints in the North. However, clinal variation in development time and sizewas strongly dependent on rearing temperature, suggesting that population differentiation in plasticity played a critical role in successful adaptation on ecological timescales. Clinal variation in wing shape was independent of ancestral plasticity, but correlated with derived plasticity, consistent with evolutionary interdependence. In contrast, clinal variation
in tibia shape aligned poorly with thermal plasticity. Overall, this study suggests that post-invasion evolution of plasticity contributed to range expansions and concurrent adaptation to novel climatic conditions.

read more
Integrating evolutionarily novel hornswithin the deeply conserved insect head (2020)

Integrating evolutionarily novel hornswithin the deeply conserved insect head (2020)

How novel traits integrate within ancient trait complexes without compromising ancestral functions is a foundational challenge in evo-devo. The insect head represents an ancient body region patterned by a deeply conserved developmental genetic network, yet at the same time constitutes a hot spot for morphological innovation. However, the mechanisms that facilitate the repeated emergence, integration, and diversification of morphological novelties within this body region are virtually unknown. Using horned Onthophagus beetles, we investigated the mechanisms that instruct the development of the dorsal adult head and the formation and integration of head horns, one of the most elaborate classes of secondary sexual weapons in the animal kingdom.

read more
Nutrition-responsive gene expression and the developmental evolution of insect polyphenism (2020)

Nutrition-responsive gene expression and the developmental evolution of insect polyphenism (2020)

Nutrition-responsive development is a ubiquitous and highly diversified example of phenotypic plasticity, yet its underlying molecular and developmental mechanisms and modes of evolutionary diversification remain poorly understood. We measured genome-wide transcription in three closely related species of horned beetles exhibiting strikingly diverse degrees of nutrition responsiveness in the development of male weaponry. We show that (1) counts of differentially expressed genes between low- and high-nutritional backgrounds mirror species-specific degrees of morphological nutrition responsiveness; (2) evolutionary exaggeration of morphological responsiveness is underlain by both amplification of ancestral nutrition-responsive gene expres-sion and recruitment of formerly low nutritionally responsive genes; and (3) secondary loss of morphological responsiveness to nutrition coincides with a dramatic reduction in gene expression plasticity. Our results further implicate genetic accommoda-tion of ancestrally high variability of gene expression plasticity in both exaggeration and loss of nutritional plasticity, yet reject a major role of taxon-restricted genes in the developmental regulation and evolution of nutritional plasticity.

read more
Beetle horns evolved from wing serial homologs (2019)

Beetle horns evolved from wing serial homologs (2019)

Understanding how novel complex traits originate is a foundational challenge in evolutionary biology. We investigated the origin of prothoracic horns in scarabaeine beetles, one of the most pronounced examples of secondary sexual traits in the animal kingdom. We show that prothoracic horns derive from bilateral source tissues; that diverse wing genes are functionally required for instructing this process; and that, in the absence of Hox input, prothoracic horn primordia transform to contribute to ectopic wings.

read more

Project Publications

Rapid differentiation of plasticity in life history and morphology during invasive range expansion and concurrent local adaptation in the horned beetle Onthophagus taurus (2020)

Rapid differentiation of plasticity in life history and morphology during invasive range expansion and concurrent local adaptation in the horned beetle Onthophagus taurus (2020)

Understanding the interplay between genetic differentiation, ancestral plasticity, and the evolution of plasticity during adaptation to environmental variation is critical to predict populations’ responses to environmental change. However, the role of plasticity in rapid adaptation in nature remains poorly understood. We here use the invasion of the horned beetle Onthophagus taurus in the United States during the last half century to study the contribution of ancestral plasticity and post-invasion evolution of plastic responses in rapid population differentiation. We document latitudinal variation in life history and morphology, including genetic compensation in development time and body size, likely adaptive responses to seasonal constraints in the North. However, clinal variation in development time and sizewas strongly dependent on rearing temperature, suggesting that population differentiation in plasticity played a critical role in successful adaptation on ecological timescales. Clinal variation in wing shape was independent of ancestral plasticity, but correlated with derived plasticity, consistent with evolutionary interdependence. In contrast, clinal variation
in tibia shape aligned poorly with thermal plasticity. Overall, this study suggests that post-invasion evolution of plasticity contributed to range expansions and concurrent adaptation to novel climatic conditions.

read more
Integrating evolutionarily novel hornswithin the deeply conserved insect head (2020)

Integrating evolutionarily novel hornswithin the deeply conserved insect head (2020)

How novel traits integrate within ancient trait complexes without compromising ancestral functions is a foundational challenge in evo-devo. The insect head represents an ancient body region patterned by a deeply conserved developmental genetic network, yet at the same time constitutes a hot spot for morphological innovation. However, the mechanisms that facilitate the repeated emergence, integration, and diversification of morphological novelties within this body region are virtually unknown. Using horned Onthophagus beetles, we investigated the mechanisms that instruct the development of the dorsal adult head and the formation and integration of head horns, one of the most elaborate classes of secondary sexual weapons in the animal kingdom.

read more
Nutrition-responsive gene expression and the developmental evolution of insect polyphenism (2020)

Nutrition-responsive gene expression and the developmental evolution of insect polyphenism (2020)

Nutrition-responsive development is a ubiquitous and highly diversified example of phenotypic plasticity, yet its underlying molecular and developmental mechanisms and modes of evolutionary diversification remain poorly understood. We measured genome-wide transcription in three closely related species of horned beetles exhibiting strikingly diverse degrees of nutrition responsiveness in the development of male weaponry. We show that (1) counts of differentially expressed genes between low- and high-nutritional backgrounds mirror species-specific degrees of morphological nutrition responsiveness; (2) evolutionary exaggeration of morphological responsiveness is underlain by both amplification of ancestral nutrition-responsive gene expres-sion and recruitment of formerly low nutritionally responsive genes; and (3) secondary loss of morphological responsiveness to nutrition coincides with a dramatic reduction in gene expression plasticity. Our results further implicate genetic accommoda-tion of ancestrally high variability of gene expression plasticity in both exaggeration and loss of nutritional plasticity, yet reject a major role of taxon-restricted genes in the developmental regulation and evolution of nutritional plasticity.

read more
Beetle horns evolved from wing serial homologs (2019)

Beetle horns evolved from wing serial homologs (2019)

Understanding how novel complex traits originate is a foundational challenge in evolutionary biology. We investigated the origin of prothoracic horns in scarabaeine beetles, one of the most pronounced examples of secondary sexual traits in the animal kingdom. We show that prothoracic horns derive from bilateral source tissues; that diverse wing genes are functionally required for instructing this process; and that, in the absence of Hox input, prothoracic horn primordia transform to contribute to ectopic wings.

read more

Project Editorials

Biases in the study of developmental bias (2020)

Developmental processes transduce diverse genetic and environmental inputs during phenotype production, causing some phenotypes to arise more frequently than others (Uller, Moczek, Watson, Brakefield, & Laland, 2018). The resulting phenotypic variation is thus not isotropic, but biased in certain directions. At the extreme end of this scenario stands the complete inability of development to produce a conceivable variant, and it is at this point that the bias inherent in organismal development becomes synonymous with the narrower notion of “developmental constraint.” But if bias is an inherent feature of all of development, if the very nature of development is to channel phenotypes towards preferred outcomes, is a term such as developmental bias needed? Or to paraphrase the title of Salazar‐Ciudad’s talk at the workshop, why should we call it developmental bias, when all we mean is development?

read more

Extended Reading

Evolution & Development – Volume 22, Issue 1-2 Special Issue: Developmental Bias in Evolution (2020)

In November 2018 the Santa Fe Institute hosted a two‐day workshop titled Developmental Bias and Evolution, funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Involving 34 participants and 22 talks, the workshop covered a wide range of approaches toward the study of bias exerted by developmental systems in the production of phenotypic variation, the impact such bias might have on evolutionary dynamics, and the methods that exist to assess the nature and consequences of this impact. Talks included historical retrospectives, philosophical examinations, and a great diversity of empirical treatments of the subject. Significant discussion and debate followed each presentation, and creative tensions emerged around key issues that characterize the diversity of perceptions of what, exactly, constitutes bias in developmental systems, when or how such bias may be evolutionarily relevant, and at the most basic level, whether the concept of developmental bias is itself useful in fueling a productive research program. This special issue is meant to capture this diversity of viewpoints, and to provide a collection of perspectives that will inform and motivate the next round of research, and the next generation of researchers.

read more

Stay Updated

© 2020 Agency in Living Systems

© 2020 Agency in Living Systems