Science China Life Sciences

, Volume 62, Issue 4, pp 437–452 | Cite as

Exaptation at the molecular genetic level

  • Jürgen BrosiusEmail author


The realization that body parts of animals and plants can be recruited or coopted for novel functions dates back to, or even predates the observations of Darwin. S.J. Gould and E.S. Vrba recognized a mode of evolution of characters that differs from adaptation. The umbrella term aptation was supplemented with the concept of exaptation. Unlike adaptations, which are restricted to features built by selection for their current role, exaptations are features that currently enhance fitness, even though their present role was not a result of natural selection. Exaptations can also arise from nonaptations; these are characters which had previously been evolving neutrally. All nonaptations are potential exaptations. The concept of exaptation was expanded to the molecular genetic level which aided greatly in understanding the enormous potential of neutrally evolving repetitive DNA—including transposed elements, formerly considered junk DNA—for the evolution of genes and genomes. The distinction between adaptations and exaptations is outlined in this review and examples are given. Also elaborated on is the fact that such distinctions are sometimes more difficult to determine; this is a widespread phenomenon in biology, where continua abound and clear borders between states and definitions are rare.


exaptation adaptation aptation neofunctionalization subfunctionalization non-protein coding RNA cooptation recruitment novel functional gene modules de novo genes retrogenes 



Apologies to those whose articles were not cited which, in part, is owed to the explosive growth of the literature in the field. The author is grateful to Stephanie Klco-Brosius for a last minute review of language.


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Copyright information

© Science China Press and Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Experimental Pathology (ZMBE), Centre for Molecular Biology of InflammationUniversity of MünsterMünsterGermany
  2. 2.Brandenburg Medical School (MHB)NeuruppinGermany

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