Charles Darwin based his groundbreaking theory of natural selection on the realization that genetic variation among organisms is the key to evolution.
Some individuals are better adapted to a given environment than others, making them more likely to survive and pass on their genes to future generations. But exactly how nature creates variation in the first place still poses somewhat of a puzzle to evolutionary biologists.
Now, Joanna Masel, associate professor in the UA's department of ecology and evolutionary biology, and postdoctoral fellow Etienne Rajon discovered the ways organisms deal with mistakes that occur while the genetic code in their cells is being interpreted greatly influences their ability to adapt to new environmental conditions in other words, their ability to evolve.
"Evolution needs a playground in order to try things out," Masel said. "It's like in competitive business: New products and ideas have to be tested to see whether they can live up to the challenge."
The finding is reported in a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In nature, it turns out, many new traits that, for example, enable their bearers to conquer new habitats, start out as blunders: mistakes made by cells that result in altered proteins with changed properties or functions that are new altogether, even when there is nothing wrong with the gene itself. Sometime later, one of these mistakes can get into the gene and become more permanent.
"If the mechanisms interpreting genetic information were completely flawless, organisms would stay the same all the time and be unable to adapt to new situations or changes in their environment," said Masel, who is also a member of the UA's BIO5 Institute.
Living beings face two options of handling the dangers posed by errors, Masel and Rajon wrote. One is to avoid making errors in the first place, for example by having a
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University of Arizona