The details in the distributions: why and how to study phenotypic variability

Curr Opin Biotechnol. 2013 Aug;24(4):752-9. doi: 10.1016/j.copbio.2013.03.010. Epub 2013 Apr 6.


Phenotypic variability is present even when genetic and environmental differences between cells are reduced to the greatest possible extent. For example, genetically identical bacteria display differing levels of resistance to antibiotics, clonal yeast populations demonstrate morphological and growth-rate heterogeneity, and mouse blastomeres from the same embryo have stochastic differences in gene expression. However, the distributions of phenotypes present among isogenic organisms are often overlooked; instead, many studies focus on population aggregates such as the mean. The details of these distributions are relevant to major questions in diverse fields, including the evolution of antimicrobial-drug and chemotherapy resistance. We review emerging experimental and statistical techniques that allow rigorous analysis of phenotypic variability and thereby may lead to advances across the biological sciences.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacteria / genetics*
  • Bacteria / metabolism
  • Gene Expression
  • Genetic Variation*
  • Phenotype*
  • Plants / genetics
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae / genetics
  • Stochastic Processes