Developmental biology

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Developmental biology is the field of biology involving the study of the development of complex organisms from a single cell, the fertilized ovum (called a zygote), to maturity. While developmental biology may be used to refer to the study of plant and fungi development, the most active area of research, by far, is the study of animal development.

Like most disciplines of biology, modern developmental biology is highly inter-disciplinary. It incorporates aspects of molecular biology, anatomy, physiology, stem cell biology, and cell biology to further scientific understanding of developmental mechanisms. Out of this, developmental biologists now can study the processes bridging the gap between genes and phenotype.[1]


The earliest known study in developmental biology was a work on comparative embryology, The Generation of Animals, attributed to Aristotle ca. 350 BC.[2] While this work accurately describes the morphological development embryos of various animal species, it would not be until the 17th century AD that researchers would undertake more detailed studies.

Armed with the recently invented microscope, investigators such as Marcello Malpighi, who published his description of chick embryonic development in 1672, and Kaspar Friedrich Wolff, who undertook the first studies on organ development in the 1760s, were finally able to start the still-ongoing process of unraveling the intricacies of organismal development.

With the advent of genetics in the early 20th century and, later, modern molecular techniques, scientists began to investigate even deeper. The field turned toward examining the molecular mechanisms underlying the morphological processes which the microscope had revealed.[3] This work combined with advances in molecular biology, population genetics, and the modern evolutionary synthesis to create the field (and research paradigm) of evolutionary developmental biology (commonly called "evo-devo").[4]


The processes of interest to modern developmental biology generally fall into one or more of five broad categories:

1. Embryonic development, the development of a zygote into an embryo with differentiated tissues.[5]
2. Cell differentiation, the growth and differentiation of pluripotent stem cells or precursor cells into different List of cell types.
3. Growth and tissue homeostasis, growth of differentiated tissues from differentiation to maturity, as well as the ongoing developmental processes required for tissue maintenance.
4. Metamorphosis, the transition from larval body plan to adult body plan in organisms where these differ.
5. Regeneration, wound repair and de-novo regeneration in damaged adult tissues.

Obviously, these categories are not exclusive. In fact, there is a great deal of overlap, in terms of the processes and mechanisms involved, between them.


The most visible applications of findings in developmental biology are in medicine. Advances in developmental biology have added significantly to the scientific understanding of many diverse areas of human anatomy and physiology. Additionally, the contributions of developmental biology to the understanding of various disease processes (e.g. cancer,[6] congenital diseases, aging,[7] etc.) continue to yield novel treatment strategies.


  1. Gilbert (2006). Developmental Biology.
  3. Gilbert (2006). Developmental Biology.
  5. See also: Embryonic Development