Daniel B. Schwab | Sofia Casasa | Armin P. Moczek
Exposure to environmental variation is a characteristic feature of normal development, one that organisms can respond to during their lifetimes by actively adjusting or maintaining their phenotype in order to maximize fitness. Plasticity and robustness have historically been studied by evolutionary biologists through quantitative genetic and reaction norm approaches, while more recent efforts emerging from evolutionary developmental biology have begun to characterize the molecular and developmental genetic underpinnings of both plastic and robust trait formation. In this review, we explore how our growing mechanistic understanding of plasticity and robustness is beginning to force a revision of our perception of both phenomena, away from our conventional view of plasticity and robustness as opposites along a continuum and toward a framework that emphasizes their reciprocal, constructive, and integrative nature. We do so in three sections. Following an introduction, the first section looks inward and reviews the genetic, epigenetic, and developmental mechanisms that enable organisms to sense and respond to environmental conditions, maintaining and adjusting trait formation in the process. In the second section, we change perspective and look outward, exploring the ways in which organisms reciprocally shape their environments in ways that influence trait formation, and do so through the lens of behavioral plasticity, niche construction, and host–microbiota interactions. In the final section, we revisit established plasticity and robustness concepts in light of these findings, and highlight research opportunities to further advance our understanding of the causes, mechanisms, and consequences of these ubiquitous, and interrelated, phenomena.