, Volume 25, Issue 5, pp 965-975,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 15 Feb 2011

Genetic and environment-induced pathways to innovation: on the possibility of a universal relationship between robustness and adaptation in complex biological systems


Recently, there has been considerable interest in the idea that mutational robustness enhances the propensity for future adaptations, i.e. evolvability, if evolution proceeds over a neutral network that extends far throughout a fitness landscape. While the genetic neutral network (NN-G) model may have important implications to our understanding of evolution, little has been done to integrate these theoretical developments with empirical evidence that heritable phenotypes can also originate and become fixated as a result of changes in the environment. In this brief commentary, I reconsider the role of environmental change in the adaptation of species and ask whether positive robustness-evolvability relationships might exist not only for genetic but also environmental buffering. In particular, I ask whether the insensitivity of species fitness towards variability in its environment can have a positive influence on the likelihood of future environment-induced adaptations (i.e. ecological opportunities) in a manner analogous to that proposed by the NN-G model. After outlining scenarios where such a counter-intuitive relationship appears plausible, I comment on the merits of evolutionary theories that can integrate complementary pathways to adaptation under static and time-variant environments. I also speculate on some of the features that such a theory might have.