Mutational robustness can facilitate adaptation

Nature. 2010 Jan 21;463(7279):353-5. doi: 10.1038/nature08694.


Robustness seems to be the opposite of evolvability. If phenotypes are robust against mutation, we might expect that a population will have difficulty adapting to an environmental change, as several studies have suggested. However, other studies contend that robust organisms are more adaptable. A quantitative understanding of the relationship between robustness and evolvability will help resolve these conflicting reports and will clarify outstanding problems in molecular and experimental evolution, evolutionary developmental biology and protein engineering. Here we demonstrate, using a general population genetics model, that mutational robustness can either impede or facilitate adaptation, depending on the population size, the mutation rate and the structure of the fitness landscape. In particular, neutral diversity in a robust population can accelerate adaptation as long as the number of phenotypes accessible to an individual by mutation is smaller than the total number of phenotypes in the fitness landscape. These results provide a quantitative resolution to a significant ambiguity in evolutionary theory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / genetics*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Genetic Fitness / genetics
  • Genetic Variation / genetics
  • Genetics, Population
  • Genotype
  • Models, Genetic
  • Mutagenesis / genetics*
  • Mutation / genetics*
  • Phenotype
  • Population Density
  • Time Factors