Biophysical Reviews

, Volume 10, Issue 2, pp 667–676 | Cite as

Mechanism of evolution by genetic assimilation

Equivalence and independence of genetic mutation and epigenetic modulation in phenotypic expression
  • Ken Nishikawa
  • Akira R. Kinjo


Conrad H. Waddington discovered the phenomenon of genetic assimilation through a series of experiments on fruit flies. In those experiments, artificially exerted environmental stress induced plastic phenotypic changes in the fruit flies, but after some generations, the same phenotypic variant started to appear without the environmental stress. Both the initial state (where the phenotypic changes were environmentally induced and plastic) and the final state (where the phenotypic changes were genetically fixed and constitutive) are experimental facts. However, it remains unclear how the environmentally induced phenotypic change in the first generation becomes genetically fixed in the central process of genetic assimilation itself. We have argued that the key to understanding the mechanism of genetic assimilation lies in epigenetics, and proposed the “cooperative model” in which the evolutionary process depends on both genetic and epigenetic factors. Evolutionary simulations based on the cooperative model reproduced the process of genetic assimilation. Detailed analysis of the trajectories has revealed genetic assimilation is a process in which epigenetically induced phenotypic changes are incrementally and statistically replaced with multiple minor genetic mutations through natural selection. In this scenario, epigenetic and genetic changes may be considered as mutually independent but equivalent in terms of their effects on phenotypic changes. This finding rejects the common (and confused) hypothesis that epigenetically induced phenotypic changes depend on genetic mutations. Furthermore, we argue that transgenerational epigenetic inheritance is not required for evolution by genetic assimilation.


Epigenome Phenotype-driven evolution Phenotypic plasticity Evo-Devo Evolutionary synthesis Simulation 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interests

Ken Nishikawa declares that he has no conflict of interest. Akira R. Kinjo declares that he has no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.


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Copyright information

© International Union for Pure and Applied Biophysics (IUPAB) and Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.National Institute of GeneticsShizuokaJapan
  2. 2.Institute for Protein ResearchOsaka UniversityOsakaJapan

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