Stochastic variation: from single cells to superorganisms

HFSP J. 2009 Dec;3(6):379-85. doi: 10.2976/1.3223356. Epub 2009 Oct 9.


Observed phenotype often fails to correspond with genotype. Although it is well established that uncontrolled genetic modifier effects and environmental variability can affect phenotype, stochastic variation in gene expression can also contribute to phenotypic differences. Here we examine recent work that has provided insights into how fundamental physical properties of living cells, and the probabilistic nature of the chemical reactions that underlie gene expression, introduce noise. We focus on instances in which a stochastic decision initiates an event in the development of a multicellular organism and how that decision can be subsequently fixed. We present an example indicating that a similar interplay between an initial stochastic decision and subsequent fixation may underlie the regulation of reproduction in social insects. We argue, therefore, that stochasticity affects biological processes from the single-gene scale through to the complex organization of an ant colony, and represents a largely neglected component of phenotypic variation and evolution.