Plasticity-led evolution would be likely if the trait combinations induced by novel environments harbour more than their fair share of genetic variation. Our new paper in PNAS shows that this is in fact quite common. For a nice overview, see this post by Luis-Miguel Chevin on F1000.

Dan Noble and Reinder Radersma collected data from studies that quantified traits and their additive genetic covariance in animals and plants exposed to novel environments. On the whole, the multivariate phenotypic change caused by environmental change were well aligned with the maximum genetic variation – and better than expected by chance.

There are several ways to interpret these results. Perhaps the most interesting from the perspective of evolvability is that developmental systems respond to environmental novelty as they do to genetic mutation. Such developmental bias means that populations that evolve plasticity will tend to continue to evolve in some ways rather than others. The present paper is the first in a series of empirical and theoretical papers that address this problem as part of our group’s involvement in an international research effort. So please keep an eye out for more.