Karen Warkentin, wearing tall olive-green rubber boots, stands on the bank of a concrete-lined pond at the edge of the Panamanian rainforest. She pulls on a broad green leaf still attached to a branch and points out a shiny clutch of jellylike eggs. “These guys are hatchable,” she says.
Red-eyed tree frogs, Agalychnis callidryas, lay their eggs on foliage at the edge of ponds; when the tadpoles hatch, they fall into the water. Normally, an egg hatches six to seven days after it is laid. The ones that Warkentin is pointing to, judging from their size and shape, are about five days old, she says. Tiny bodies show through the clear gel-filled membrane. Under a microscope, the red hearts would just be visible.
She reaches down to wet her hand in the pond water. “They don’t really want to hatch,” she says, “but they can.” She pulls the leaf out over the water and gently runs a finger over the eggs.
Sproing! A tiny tadpole breaks out. It lands partway down the leaf, twitches and falls into the water. Another and another of its siblings follow. “It’s not something I get tired of watching,” Warkentin says.
With just a flick of her finger, Warkentin has demonstrated a phenomenon that is transforming biology. After decades of thinking of genes as a “blueprint”—the coded DNA strands dictate to our cells exactly what to do and when to do it—biologists are coming to terms with a confounding reality. Life, even an entity as seemingly simple as a frog egg, is flexible. It has options. At five days or so, red-eyed tree frog eggs, developing right on schedule, can suddenly take a different path if they detect vibrations from an attacking snake: They hatch early and try their luck in the pond below.
The egg’s surprising responsiveness epitomizes a revolutionary concept in biology called phenotypic plasticity, which is the flexibility an organism shows in translating its genes into physical features and actions. The phenotype is pretty much everything about an organism other than its genes (which scientists call the genotype). The concept of phenotypic plasticity serves as an antidote to simplistic cause-and-effect thinking about genes; it tries to explain how a gene or set of genes can give rise to multiple outcomes, depending partly on what the organism encounters in its environment. The study of evolution has so long centered on genes themselves that, Warkentin says, scientists have assumed that “individuals are different because they’re genetically different. But a lot of the variation out there comes from environmental effects.”
When a houseplant makes paler leaves in the sun and a water flea grows spines to protect against hungry fish, they’re showing phenotypic plasticity. Depending on the environment—whether there are snakes, hurricanes or food shortages to deal with—organisms can bring out different phenotypes. Nature or nurture? Well, both.
The realization has big implications for how scientists think about evolution. Phenotypic plasticity offers a solution to the crucial puzzle of how organisms adapt to environmental challenges, intentionally or not. And there is no more astonishing example of inborn flexibility than these frog eggs—blind masses of goo genetically programmed to develop and hatch like clockwork. Or so it seemed.
Written By: Helen Fieldscontinue to source article at smithsonianmag.com