Phenotypic plasticity has been hypothesized to play a central role in the evolution of phenotypic diversity across species (West-Eberhard 2003). Through ‘genetic assimilation’, phenotypes that are initially environmentally induced within species become genetically fixed over evolutionary time. While genetic assimilation has been shown to occur in both the laboratory and the field (Waddington 1953; Aubret & Shine 2009), it remains to be shown whether it can account for broad patterns of phenotypic diversity across entire adaptive radiations. Furthermore, our ignorance of the underlying molecular mechanisms has hampered our ability to incorporate phenotypic plasticity into models of evolutionary processes. In this issue of Molecular Ecology, Parsons et al. (2016) take a significant step in filling these conceptual gaps making use of cichlid fishes as a powerful study system. Cichlid jaw and skull morphology show adaptive, plastic changes in response to early dietary experiences (Fig. 1). In this research, Parsons et al. (2016) first show that the direction of phenotypic plasticity aligns with the major axis of phenotypic divergence across species. They then dissect the underlying genetic architecture of this plasticity, showing that it is specific to the developmental environment and implicating the patched locus in genetic assimilation (i.e. a reduction in the environmental sensitivity of that locus in the derived species).
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© 2016 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.