There is a growing appreciation of the extent of transcriptome variation across individual cells of the same cell type. While expression variation may be a byproduct of, for example, dynamic or homeostatic processes, here we consider whether single-cell molecular variation per se might be crucial for population-level function. Under this hypothesis, molecular variation indicates a diversity of hidden functional capacities within an ensemble of identical cells, and this functional diversity facilitates collective behavior that would be inaccessible to a homogenous population. In reviewing this topic, we explore possible functions that might be carried by a heterogeneous ensemble of cells; however, this question has proven difficult to test, both because methods to manipulate molecular variation are limited and because it is complicated to define, and measure, population-level function. We consider several possible methods to further pursue the hypothesis that variation is function through the use of comparative analysis and novel experimental techniques.
Keywords: bet-hedging; evolution of variation; fractional response; functional variation; single cell transcriptome; single cell variation.
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