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Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2008 Nov;83(4):509-32. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-185X.2008.00052.x. Epub 2008 Sep 24.

Robustness: confronting lessons from physics and biology.

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Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques, 35 route de Chartres, 91440 Bures-sur-Yvette, France.


The term robustness is encountered in very different scientific fields, from engineering and control theory to dynamical systems to biology. The main question addressed herein is whether the notion of robustness and its correlates (stability, resilience, self-organisation) developed in physics are relevant to biology, or whether specific extensions and novel frameworks are required to account for the robustness properties of living systems. To clarify this issue, the different meanings covered by this unique term are discussed; it is argued that they crucially depend on the kind of perturbations that a robust system should by definition withstand. Possible mechanisms underlying robust behaviours are examined, either encountered in all natural systems (symmetries, conservation laws, dynamic stability) or specific to biological systems (feedbacks and regulatory networks). Special attention is devoted to the (sometimes counterintuitive) interrelations between robustness and noise. A distinction between dynamic selection and natural selection in the establishment of a robust behaviour is underlined. It is finally argued that nested notions of robustness, relevant to different time scales and different levels of organisation, allow one to reconcile the seemingly contradictory requirements for robustness and adaptability in living systems.

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