Waddington’s Legacy to Developmental and Theoretical Biology

Biological Theory 3 (3):188-197 (2008)

Abstract

Conrad Hal Waddington was a British developmental biologist who mainly worked in Cambridge and Edinburgh, but spent the late 1930s with Morgan in California learning about Drosophila. He was the first person to realize that development depended on the then unknown activities of genes, and he needed an appropriate model organism. His major experimental contributions were to show how mutation analysis could be used to investigate developmental mechanisms in Drosophila, and to explore how developmental mutation could drive evolution, his other deep interest. Waddington was, however, predominantly a thinker, and set out to provide a coherent framework for understanding the genetic bases of embryogenesis and evolution, developing his ideas in many books. Perhaps his best-known concept is the epigenetic landscape: here a ball rolls down a complex valley, making path choices. The rolling ball represents a cell’s development over time, while the topography represents the changing regulatory environment that controls these choices. In its later forms, the role of each feature in the landscape was controlled by the effects of sets of interacting genes, an idea underpinning contemporary approaches to systems biology. Waddington was the first developmental geneticist and probably the most important developmental biologist of the pre-molecular age

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