Organisms cope with environmental uncertainty by guessing the future

August 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: Genes, environment, or chance?

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

Related Stories

Genes, environment, or chance?

February 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 another factor: ...

Nature Commentary investigates synthetic-biology disaster

February 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

June 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

More reasons to eat your broccoli

June 22, 2016

Love it or hate it, broccoli is touted as a superfood, offering an array of health benefits. And it's about to get even more super.

Monkeys get more selective with age

June 23, 2016

As people get older, they become choosier about how they spend their time and with whom they spend it. Now, researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on June 23 find, based on a series of experimental ...

Team discovers new origins for farmed rice

June 22, 2016

Chew on this: rice farming is a far older practice than we knew. In fact, the oldest evidence of domesticated rice has just been found in China, and it's about 9,000 years old.

1 comment

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.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.