Taking chances and making mistakes: non-genetic phenotypic heterogeneity and its consequences for surviving in dynamic environments

J R Soc Interface. 2017 Jul;14(132):20170141. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2017.0141.


Natural selection has shaped the strategies for survival and growth of microorganisms. The success of microorganisms depends not only on slow evolutionary tuning but also on the ability to adapt to unpredictable changes in their environment. In principle, adaptive strategies range from purely deterministic mechanisms to those that exploit the randomness intrinsic to many cellular and molecular processes. Depending on the environment and selective pressures, particular strategies can lie somewhere along this continuum. In recent years, non-genetic cell-to-cell differences have received a lot of attention, not least because of their potential impact on the ability of microbial populations to survive in dynamic environments. Using several examples, we describe the origins of spontaneous and induced mechanisms of phenotypic adaptation. We identify some of the commonalities of these examples and consider the potential role of chance and constraints in microbial phenotypic adaptation.

Keywords: bet-hedging; natural selection; nutrient transitions; phenotypic adaptation; phenotypic diversification.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Animals
  • Ecosystem*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Phenotype
  • Selection, Genetic*