Robustness of a biological system (also called biological or genetic robustness) is the persistence of a certain characteristic or trait in a system under perturbations or conditions of uncertainty. Robustness in development is known as canalization. According to the kind of perturbation involved, robustness can be classified as mutational, environmental, recombinational, or behavioral robustness etc. Robustness is achieved through the combination of many genetic and molecular mechanisms and can evolve by either direct or indirect selection. Several model systems have been developed to experimentally study robustness and its evolutionary consequences.
Mutational robustness (also called mutation tolerance) describes the extent to which an organism’s phenotype remains constant in spite of mutation. Robustness can be empirically measured for several genomes and individual genes by inducing mutations and measuring what proportion of mutants retain the same phenotype, function or fitness. More generally this is known as the distribution of fitness effects of mutation (i.e. the frequencies of different fitnesses of mutants). Proteins so far investigated have shown a tolerance to mutations of roughly 66% (i.e. two thirds of mutations are neutral).
Conversely, measured mutational robustnesses of organisms vary widely. For example, >95% of point mutations in C. elegans have no detectable effect and even 90% of single gene knockouts in E. coli are non-lethal. Viruses, however, only tolerate 20-40% of mutations and hence are much more sensitive to mutation.
In varying environments, perfect adaptation to one condition may come at the expense of adaptation to another. Consequently, the total selection pressure on an organism is the average selection across all environments weighted by the percentage time spent in that environment. Variable environment can therefore select for environmental robustness where organisms can function across a wide range of conditions with little change in phenotype or fitness (biology). Some organisms show adaptations to tolerate large changes in temperature, water availability, salinity or food availability. Plants, in particular, are unable to move when the environment changes and so show a range of mechanisms for achieving environmental robustness. Similarly, this can be seen in proteins as tolerance to a wide range of solvents, ion concentrations or temperatures.
Genetic and molecular causesEdit
Genomes mutate by environmental damage and imperfect replication, yet they display remarkable tolerance. This comes from robustness both at the genome level and protein level.
Organism mutational robustnessEdit
There are many mechanisms that provide genome robustness. For example, genetic redundancy reduces the effect of mutations in any one copy of a multi-copy gene. Additionally the flux through a metabolic pathway is typically limited by only a few of the steps, meaning that changes in function of many of the enzymes have little effect on fitness. Similarly metabolic networks have multiple alternate pathways to produce many key metabolites.
Protein mutational robustnessEdit
Protein mutation tolerance is the product of two main features: the structure of the genetic code and protein structural robustness. Proteins are resistant to mutations because many sequences can fold into highly similar structural folds. A protein adopts a limited ensemble of native conformations because those conformers have lower energy than unfolded and mis-folded states (ΔΔG of folding). This is achieved by a distributed, internal network of cooperative interactions (hydrophobic, polar and covalent). Protein structural robustness results from few single mutations being sufficiently disruptive to compromise function. Proteins have also evolved to avoid aggregation as partially folded proteins can combine to form large, repeating, insoluble protein fibrils and masses. There is evidence that proteins show negative design features to reduce the exposure of aggregation-prone beta-sheet motifs in their structures. Additionally, there is some evidence that the genetic code itself may be optimised such that most point mutations lead to similar amino acids (conservative). Together these factors create a distribution of fitness effects of mutations that contains a high proportion of neutral and nearly-neutral mutations.
Since organisms are constantly exposed to genetic and non-genetic perturbations, robustness is important to ensure the stability of phenotypes. Also, under mutation-selection balance, mutational robustness can allow cryptic genetic variation to accumulate in a population. While phenotypically neutral in a stable environment, these genetic differences can be revealed as trait differences in an environment-dependent manner (see evolutionary capacitance), thereby allowing for the expression of a greater number of heritable phenotypes in populations exposed to a variable environment.
Being robust may even be a favoured at the expense of total fitness as an evolutionarily stable strategy (also called survival of the flattest). A high but narrow peak of a fitness landscape confers high fitness but low robustness as most mutations lead to massive loss of fitness. High mutation rates may favour population of lower, but broader fitness peaks. More critical biological systems may also have greater selection for robustness as reductions in function are more damaging to fitness. Mutational robustness is thought to be one driver for theoretical viral quasispecies formation.
Emergent mutational robustnessEdit
Natural selection can select directly or indirectly for robustness. When mutation rates are high and population sizes are large, populations are predicted to move to more densely connected regions of neutral network as less robust variants have fewer surviving mutant descendants. The conditions under which selection could act to directly increase mutational robustness in this way are restrictive, and therefore such selection is thought to be limited to only a few viruses and microbes having large population sizes and high mutation rates. Such emergent robustness has been observed in experimental evolution of cytochrome P450s and B-lactamase. Conversely, mutational robustness may evolve as a byproduct of natural selection for robustness to environmental perturbations.
Robustness and evolvabilityEdit
Mutational robustness has been thought to have a negative impact on evolvability because it reduces the mutational accessibility of distinct heritable phenotypes for a single genotype and reduces selective differences within a genetically diverse population. Counter-intuitively however, it has been hypothesized that phenotypic robustness towards mutations may actually increase the pace of heritable phenotypic adaptation when viewed over longer periods of time.
One hypothesis for how robustness promotes evolvability in asexual populations is that connected networks of fitness-neutral genotypes result in mutational robustness which reduce accessibility of new heritable phenotypes over short timescales. Over longer periods of time, neutral mutation and genetic drift causes the population to spread out over a larger neutral network in genotype space. This genetic diversity gives the population mutational access to a greater number of distinct heritable phenotypes that can be reached from different points of the neutral network. However, this mechanism may be limited to phenotypes dependent on a single genetic locus; for polygenic traits, genetic diversity in asexual populations does not significantly increase evolvability.
In the case of proteins, robustness promotes evolvability in the form of an excess free energy of folding. Since most mutations reduce stability, an excess folding free energy allows toleration of mutations that are beneficial to activity but would otherwise destabilise the protein.
Methods and model systemsEdit
There are many systems that have been used to study robustness. In silico models have been used to model RNA secondary structure, protein lattice models, or gene networks. Experimental systems for individual genes include enzyme activity of cytochrome P450, B-lactamase, RNA polymerase, and LacI have all been used. Whole organism robustness has been investigated in RNA virus fitness, bacterial chemotaxis, Drosophila fitness, segment polarity network, neurogenic network and bone morphogenetic protein gradient, C. elegans fitness and vulval development, and mammalian circadian clock.
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