The notion that there is a one-one mapping from genotype to phenotype was overturned a long time ago. Along with genotype and environment, 'non-genetic changes' orchestrated by altered RNA and protein molecules also guide the development of phenotype. The idea that there is a route through which changes in phenotype can lead to changes in genotype impinges on several phenomena of molecular, developmental, evolutionary and applied interest. Phenotypic changes that do not alter the underlying DNA sequence have been studied across model systems (eg: DNA and histone modifications, RNA editing, prion formation) and are known to play an important role in short-term adaptation. However, because of their transient nature and unstable inheritance, the role of such changes in long-term evolution has remained controversial. I classify and review three ways in which non-genetic changes can influence genotype and impact cellular fitness across generations, with an emphasis on the enticing idea that they may act as stepping stones for genetic adaptation. I focus on work from microbial systems and attempt to highlight recent experiments and models that bear on this idea. Overall, I review evidence which suggests that non-genetic changes can impact phenotype via their influence on the genotype, and thus play a role in evolutionary change.
Keywords: Adaptation; Evolution; Non-genetic change; Phenotypic variability; Translation errors.