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Developmental biology: ‘not a confined, specified discipline’?

Posted by , on 10 January 2018

Catching up after the holidays, I finally got around to reading Scott Gilbert‘s recently published essay in PloS Biology. In case you haven’t seen it yet, the essay proposes that developmental biology is ‘the stem cell of biological disciplines’, and that many other areas of biology – such as cell biology, genetics, immunology, oncology and neurobiology – all grew out of developmental biology (or embryology, as it was more commonly known back then). He also discusses why it is that our field isn’t as well regarded as it should be – why, in words from former SDB president Blanche Capel reproduced in the essay, “…developmental biology does not get the credit it deserves for its contributions to understanding the natural world”. I found Gilbert’s essay fascinating and illuminating, particularly in terms of learning more about how embryologists of the 19th and 20th centuries were instrumental in the birth or growth of so many fields. While many of us are familiar with the fact that Thomas Hunt Morgan, one of the founding fathers of modern genetics, was first an embryologist, and with Haeckel’s ideas of the parallels between ontogeny and phylogeny, the idea that – for example – immunology was born out of developmental biology was new to me.


Gilbert concludes his essay with three take-home messages. He makes the case for the continued importance of developmental biology as a ‘vital generative science’ that is entering ‘a new golden age’ as the field expands in new and fascinating directions (echoing Daniel St Johnston‘s essay ‘The renaissance of developmental biology‘, also published in PLoS Biology). And he argues that ‘many of the disciplines that had come from developmental biology are returning to a developmental framework’. Both these messages resonate strongly with me and, I’m sure, with many members of our community. But his first take-home message doesn’t seem quite so straightforward. Gilbert states that ‘…developmental biology is not a confined, specified discipline – such as genetics, cell biology, immunology, oncology, neurobiology and so forth’ and that ‘the descendants of developmental biology … are more differentiated and their potency much more restricted’. Now, I don’t like to challenge someone who’s promoting the importance of developmental biology (and of course I personally think it’s by far the most fascinating field of biology!), and I’ll admit to feeling somewhat uncomfortable questioning the conclusions of someone of Gilbert’s stature. But sitting in an office with the Journal of Cell Science team, I’ve always seen developmental biology as a more confined field than cell biology, and looking through the tables of contents of genetics journals, I generally feel that they span a broader area than Development. So I find this message somewhat counter-intuitive.


I largely agree with Gilbert that developmental biology is ‘not confined to any level of organization’ and ‘can be studied in any species, organ system, or biome’. And I would make the case that it goes beyond embryology, encompassing the fields of homeostasis, regeneration and ageing to span the entire life of an organism. But does this really make it ‘undifferentiated’ as Gilbert states? I won’t argue against the analogy between developmental biology and stem cells when it comes to its history of budding off new disciplines (I’m not a historian of science so I don’t have the knowledge either way!). But I do feel that he perhaps takes the analogy one step too far by saying that this makes the field ‘pluripotent’. Sure, developmental biology is a broad research area, with important interdisciplinary crossovers spanning biochemistry to behaviour, but it does have its limits – there are lots of questions in biology where the links to development are tenuous at best. And while I like the idea that developmental biology ‘regenerates itself constantly as new techniques and hypotheses become available’, I suspect you’d find many cell biologists, geneticists and others who would say the same about their fields. From my reading, Gilbert’s essay seems to be trying to make the claim that developmental biology is more creative than other fields, and I find this a little harder to swallow.


Gilbert’s essay has – quite rightly – received a fair bit of positive praise on social media, and I hope that it will help to raise the profile of developmental biology among the wider scientific community, educators and funders (in this context, I’m particularly taken by Gilbert’s Competing interests statement!). But I’m writing this post because I’m intrigued to know if my reservations chime with other readers, and to find out what other people think about this: does it really make sense to make the case for developmental biology as ‘the stem cell of biological disciplines’?


I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!




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5 thoughts on “Developmental biology: ‘not a confined, specified discipline’?”

  1. As a PhD student I was delighted at the end of the essay, especially because the historical point of view was very enjoyable. It is always nice to turn back and learn how we got to these days situation. The competing interest statement says it all, and I find the dispute about which discipline came first rather academical and a little pointless. Developmental biology could be intended as a framework for asking questions in several other disciplines, as long as it is providing a fresh and compelling point of view on the question you are asking. Nevertheless, this essay is a highly suggested read!

  2. I think you miss the point that Dev Biol is an umbrella science that, like physiology in its original sense, asks question at the systemic level but is not afraid to seek for explanations at all levels of complexity down to the gene. As such it is inclusive lending expertise from more specific disciplines such as biomechanics, biochemistry, genetics, cell biology, anatomy and catalysing their interdisciplinary collaboration towards the fundamental biological questions – at the exact level at which diseases become manifest. See our joint advocacy campaign which has unfortunately not been mentioned:

    1. I found Gilbert’s piece thought provoking and, indeed, wrote some comments on it in a Blogpost. Thought provoking because in trying to promote Developmental Biology it stretches history in an attempt to place Developmental Biology at the center of Biology. The claim is easy to disprove –my post is a very abridged version of a larger argument that is not difficult to make- and I am not sure how much help it is for the discipline. What is good about Developmental Biology is its subject: the development of an organism and that in this context disciplines like Cell Biology or Biochemistry find new questions and perspectives which can only be appreciated in the context of the dynamics of tissues when cells try to build organs and organisms. Furthermore, Developmental Biology is giving a new lease of life to Physics and many people are having fun for this. As for Genetics, read the post but as K. Brown suspects, to claim that Developmental Biology is less confined than Genetics is to miss the essence of Genetics as the language and the underpinning of all Biology. No problem with advocating this important branch of Biology but one should not do it by stretching reality, nice as the outcome might sound.

  3. I definitely agree with you that Gilbert’s essay is fascinating and illuminating. I also found a lot of motivation. The developmental biologist study each model whith a lot of love, from the shape of the wing of a buterfly to the complex neural network. However, somethimes other disciplines, like oncology or inmunology, where medical students are more involved think that study how a ant develops is a waste of time but “nothing in Biology makes sense except in the light of Evolution”, that means, in a way, that to understand all complex diseases we need to understand first how life develops. As Gilbert said, we are in a new golden age for developmental biology, starting the study of non-taditional model, trying to teach why is so important the developmental biology and I trully believe that is because of the passion of the people that works in the field.

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