Organisms cope with environmental uncertainty by guessing the future

Aug 16, 2012

In uncertain environments, organisms not only react to signals, but also use molecular processes to make guesses about the future, according to a study by Markus Arnoldini et al. from ETH Zurich and Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. The authors report in PLoS Computational Biology that if environmental signals are unreliable, organisms are expected to evolve the ability to take random decisions about adapting to cope with adverse situations.

Most organisms live in ever-changing environments, and are at times exposed to adverse conditions that are not preceded by any signal. Examples for such conditions include exposure to chemicals or UV light, sudden weather changes or infections by pathogens. Organisms can adapt to withstand the harmful effects of these stresses. Previous experimental work with microorganisms has reported variability in stress responses between genetically identical individuals. The results of the present study suggest that this variation emerges because individual organisms take random decisions, and such variation is beneficial because it helps organisms to reduce the metabolic costs of protection without compromising the overall benefits.

The theoretical results of this study can help to understand why genetically identical organisms often express different traits, an observation that is not explained by the conventional notion of nature and nurture. Future experiments will reveal whether the predictions made by the mathematical model are met in natural systems.

Explore further: Ephemeral soap bubbles give clue to how cells develop with regular shapes in tissues

More information: Arnoldini M, Mostowy R, Bonhoeffer S, Ackermann M (2012) Evolution of Stress Response in the Face of Unreliable Environmental Signals. PLoS ComputBiol 8(8): e1002627. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002627

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Genes, environment, or chance?

Feb 18, 2010

Biologists attribute variations among individual organisms to differences in genes or environment, or both. But a new study of nematode worms with identical genes, raised in identical environments, has revealed ...

Nature Commentary investigates synthetic-biology disaster

Feb 29, 2012

Experts say at least $20 million to $30 million in government research is needed over the next decade to adequately identify and address the possible ecological risks of synthetic biology, an emerging area of research focused ...

Evolutionary benefits of sex in difficult places

Jun 14, 2012

(Phys.org) -- University of Auckland scientists have provided the first experimental explanation of how sexual reproduction helps species adapt in challenging real-world environments, solving a classic conundrum in evolutionary ...

Recommended for you

Scientists see how plants optimize their repair

18 hours ago

Researchers led by a Washington State University biologist have found the optimal mechanism by which plants heal the botanical equivalent of a bad sunburn. Their work, published in the Proceedings of the Na ...

Structure of an iron-transport protein revealed

Oct 20, 2014

For the first time, the three dimensional structure of the protein that is essential for iron import into cells, has been elucidated. Biochemists of the University of Zurich have paved the way towards a better ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

JVK
1 / 5 (2) Aug 17, 2012
Adaptive evolution to stress that is associated with nutrient chemical acquisition or reproduction is genetically predisposed. If the environment contains anything that may be a beneficial nutrient chemical, an organism that ingests and successfully metabolizes it will express the metabolite(s)in its pheromone production. Conspecifics sense the adaptive change and 'new' the nutrient causes changes in intracellular signaling and stochastic gene expression that result in the production of de novo chemical receptors that facilitate ecological niche construction where nutrients are available, and social niche construction where conspecifics are available. The lack of nutrient chemicals or pheromones from conspecifics is stress-inducing, and may restart the reciprocity.