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PLoS One. 2007 Oct 10;2(10):e1021.

Maladaptation and the paradox of robustness in evolution.

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Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California at Irvine, Irvine, California, United States of America.



Organisms use a variety of mechanisms to protect themselves against perturbations. For example, repair mechanisms fix damage, feedback loops keep homeostatic systems at their setpoints, and biochemical filters distinguish signal from noise. Such buffering mechanisms are often discussed in terms of robustness, which may be measured by reduced sensitivity of performance to perturbations.


I use a mathematical model to analyze the evolutionary dynamics of robustness in order to understand aspects of organismal design by natural selection. I focus on two characters: one character performs an adaptive task; the other character buffers the performance of the first character against perturbations. Increased perturbations favor enhanced buffering and robustness, which in turn decreases sensitivity and reduces the intensity of natural selection on the adaptive character. Reduced selective pressure on the adaptive character often leads to a less costly, lower performance trait.


The paradox of robustness arises from evolutionary dynamics: enhanced robustness causes an evolutionary reduction in the adaptive performance of the target character, leading to a degree of maladaptation compared to what could be achieved by natural selection in the absence of robustness mechanisms. Over evolutionary time, buffering traits may become layered on top of each other, while the underlying adaptive traits become replaced by cheaper, lower performance components. The paradox of robustness has widespread implications for understanding organismal design.

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