Research in evolutionary developmental biology, known as evo-devo, is being held back because the dominant model organisms used by scientists are unable to illustrate key questions about evolution, argue biologists in the latest issue of Nature Reviews Genetics.
The subject of evo-devo, which became established almost a decade ago, is particularly dependent on the six main model organisms that have been inherited from developmental biology (fruit fly, nematode worm, frog, zebrafish, chick and mouse).
To help understand how developmental change underpins evolution, evo-devo researchers have, over recent years, selected dozens of new model organisms, ranging from sea anemones to dung beetles, to study.
One of the selection criteria deemed most crucial is the phylogenetic position of prospective model organisms, which reflects their evolutionary relationships.
Phylogenetic position is employed in two common, but problematic, ways, either as a guide to plug holes in unexplored regions of the phylogenetic tree, or as a pointer to species with presumed primitive (ancestral) characteristics.
Drs Ronald Jenner and Matthew Wills from the Department of Biology & Biochemistry at the University of Bath (UK), call for a more judicious approach to selecting organisms, based on the evo-devo themes that the organism can shed light on.
"It is fair to say that, since its inception, some workers feel that evo-devo hasnt quite lived up to its early expectations," said Dr Jenner.
"Partly this is because too much was expected too soon, but we suspect that in terms of its future promise the current choice of new model organisms has not yet been optimised.
Dr Wills said: "Many models to date, in particular the big six, have been chosen because they are easy to keep in the laboratory, select and breed.