The role of ‘generic’ physical mechanisms in morphogenesis and pattern formation of tissues is considered. Generic mechanisms are defined as those physical processes that are broadly applicable to living and non-living systems, such as adhesion, surface tension and gravitational effects, viscosity, phase separation, convection and reaction-diffusion coupling. They are contrasted with ‘genetic’ mechanisms, a term reserved for highly evolved, machine-like, biomolecular processes. Generic mechanisms acting upon living tissues are capable of giving rise to morphogenetic rearrangements of cytoplasmic, tissue and extracellular matrix components, sometimes leading to ‘microfingers’, and to chemical waves or stripes. We suggest that many morphogenetic and patterning effects are the inevitable outcome of recognized physical properties of tissues, and that generic physical mechanisms that act on these properties are complementary to, and interdependent with genetic mechanisms. We also suggest that major morphological reorganizations in phylogenetic lineages may arise by the action of generic physical mechanisms on developing embryos. Subsequent evolution of genetic mechanisms could stabilize and refine developmental outcomes originally guided by generic effects.

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