The GRN concept as a guide for evolutionary developmental biology.
Organismal phenotypes result largely from inherited developmental programs, usually executed during embryonic and juvenile life stages. These programs are not blank slates onto which natural selection can draw arbitrary forms. Rather, the mechanisms of development play an integral role in shaping phenotypic diversity and help determine the evolutionary trajectories of species. Modern evolutionary biology must, therefore, account for these mechanisms in both theory and in practice. The gene regulatory network (GRN) concept represents a potent tool for achieving this goal whose utility has grown in tandem with advances in "omic" technologies and experimental techniques. However, while the GRN concept is widely utilized, it is often less clear what practical implications it has for conducting research in evolutionary developmental biology. In this Perspective, we attempt to provide clarity by discussing how experiments and projects can be designed in light of the GRN concept. We first map familiar biological notions onto the more abstract components of GRN models. We then review how diverse functional genomic approaches can be directed toward the goal of constructing such models and discuss current methods for functionally testing evolutionary hypotheses that arise from them. Finally, we show how the major steps of GRN model construction and experimental validation suggest generalizable workflows that can serve as a scaffold for project design. Taken together, the practical implications that we draw from the GRN concept provide a set of guideposts for studies aiming at unraveling the molecular basis of phenotypic diversity.