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Nature. 2003 Jul 31;424(6948):549-52.

Evolutionary capacitance as a general feature of complex gene networks.

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Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305-5020, USA.


An evolutionary capacitor buffers genotypic variation under normal conditions, thereby promoting the accumulation of hidden polymorphism. But it occasionally fails, thereby revealing this variation phenotypically. The principal example of an evolutionary capacitor is Hsp90, a molecular chaperone that targets an important set of signal transduction proteins. Experiments in Drosophila and Arabidopsis have demonstrated three key properties of Hsp90: (1) it suppresses phenotypic variation under normal conditions and releases this variation when functionally compromised; (2) its function is overwhelmed by environmental stress; and (3) it exerts pleiotropic effects on key developmental processes. But whether these properties necessarily make Hsp90 a significant and unique facilitator of adaptation is unclear. Here we use numerical simulations of complex gene networks, as well as genome-scale expression data from yeast single-gene deletion strains, to present a mechanism that extends the scope of evolutionary capacitance beyond the action of Hsp90 alone. We illustrate that most, and perhaps all, genes reveal phenotypic variation when functionally compromised, and that the availability of loss-of-function mutations accelerates adaptation to a new optimum phenotype. However, this effect does not require the mutations to be conditional on the environment. Thus, there might exist a large class of evolutionary capacitors whose effects on phenotypic variation complement the systemic, environment-induced effects of Hsp90.

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