Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2023 Dec 19;120(51):e2309760120. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2309760120. Epub 2023 Dec 13.
Genetic assimilation is the process by which a phenotype that is initially induced by an environmental stimulus becomes stably inherited in the absence of the stimulus after a few generations of selection. While the concept has attracted much debate after being introduced by C. H. Waddington 70 y ago, there have been few experiments to quantitatively characterize the phenomenon. Here, we revisit and organize the results of Waddington’s original experiments and follow-up studies that attempted to replicate his results. We then present a theoretical model to illustrate the process of genetic assimilation and highlight several aspects that we think require further quantitative studies, including the gradual increase of penetrance, the statistics of delay in assimilation, and the frequency of unviability during selection. Our model captures Waddington’s picture of developmental paths in a canalized landscape using a stochastic dynamical system with alternative trajectories that can be controlled by either external signals or internal variables. It also reconciles two descriptions of the phenomenon-Waddington’s, expressed in terms of an individual organism’s developmental paths, and that of Bateman in terms of the population distribution crossing a hypothetical threshold. Our results provide theoretical insight into the concepts of canalization, phenotypic plasticity, and genetic assimilation.