When unreliable cues are good enough

Am Nat. 2013 Sep;182(3):313-27. doi: 10.1086/671161. Epub 2013 Jul 15.


In many species, nongenetic phenotypic variation helps mitigate risk associated with an uncertain environment. In some cases, developmental cues can be used to match phenotype to environment-a strategy known as predictive plasticity. When environmental conditions are entirely unpredictable, generating random phenotypic diversity may improve the long-term success of a lineage-a strategy known as diversified bet hedging. When partially reliable information is available, a well-adapted developmental strategy may strike a balance between the two strategies. We use information theory to analyze a model of development in an uncertain environment, where cue reliability is affected by variation both within and between generations. We show that within-generation variation in cues decreases the reliability of cues without affecting their fitness value. This transpires because the optimal balance of predictive plasticity and diversified bet hedging is unchanged. However, within-generation variation in cues does change the developmental mechanisms used to create that balance: developmental sensitivity to such cues not only helps match phenotype to environment but also creates phenotypic diversity that may be useful for hedging bets against environmental change. Understanding the adaptive role of developmental sensitivity thus depends on a proper assessment of both the predictive power and the structure of variation in environmental cues.

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, Biological*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Cues*
  • Environment
  • Information Theory
  • Models, Biological
  • Plant Development*
  • Uncertainty*