But if that tenet is true, how do you explain all the well-adapted, complex organisms---from orchids to bower birds to humans---in this world?
This "cost of complexity" conundrum puzzles biologists and offers ammunition to proponents of intelligent design, who hold that such intricacy could arise only through the efforts of a divine designer, not through natural selection.
A new analysis by Jianzhi "George" Zhang and coworkers at the University of Michigan and Taiwan's National Health Research Institutes reveals flaws in the models from which the cost of complexity idea arose and shows that complexity can, indeed, develop through evolutionary processes. In fact, a moderate amount of complexity best equips organisms to adapt to environmental change, the research suggests. The findings will be published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences during the week of Sept. 27.
The study focused on a genetic phenomenon called pleiotropy, in which a single gene affects more than one trait. Examples of pleiotropy are well known in certain human diseases, and the effect also has been documented in experimental animals such as fruit flies. Biologists also recognize its importance in development, aging and many evolutionary processes. However, pleiotropy is difficult to measure, and its general patterns are poorly understood, said Zhang, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.
Even so, scientists have developed mathematical models of the phenomenon, based on certain assumptions, and have made predictions from the results of the models. Zhang and coworkers decided to test the assumptions against real-life observations by analyzing several large databases that catalog the effects of specific genetic mutations on traits in model organisms (yeast, roundworms and mice). Each data set included hundreds to thousands of genes and tens to hundreds of traits.
For simplicity, mathematical models of pleiotropy have assumed that all genes in an organism affect all of its traits to some extent. But Zhang's group found that most genes affect only a small number of traits, while relatively few genes affect large numbers of traits.
What's more, they found a "modular" pattern of organization, with genes and traits grouped into sets. Genes in a particular set affect a particular group of traits, but not traits in other groups.
In addition, the researchers learned that the more traits a gene affects, the stronger its effect on each trait.
All of these findings challenge the assumptions underlying the classic mathematical models that suggest complexity is prohibitively costly.
When Fisher first wrote about the cost of complexity, he argued that random mutations---which, along with natural selection, drive evolution---are more likely to benefit simple organisms than complex organisms.
"Think of a hammer and a microscope," Zhang said. "One is complex, one is simple. If you change the length of an arbitrary component of the system by an inch, for example, you're more likely to break the microscope than the hammer."
In a paper published in 2000, evolutionary geneticist H. Allen Orr of Rochester came up with additional reasons for the cost of complexity. According to his model, even if a mutation benefits a complex organism, it's unlikely to spread throughout the whole population and become "fixed." And even if it does that, the advantage of the mutation is likely to be small.
By incorporating a more realistic representation of pleiotropy, Zhang's analysis found the reverse of Orr's arguments to be true. Although Fisher's observation still holds, reversing Orr's assertions minimizes its impact, thus reducing the cost of complexity.
Further, the analysis showed that the ability of organisms to adapt is highest at intermediate levels of complexity. "This means a simple organism is not best, and a very complex organism is not best; some intermediate level of complexity is best in terms of the adaptation rate," Zhang said.
The new findings help buffer evolutionary biology against the criticisms of intelligent design proponents, Zhang said. "The evolution of complexity is one thing that they often target. Admittedly, there were some theoretical difficulties in explaining the evolution of complexity because of the notion of the cost of complexity, but with our findings these difficulties are now removed."
Zhang's coauthors on the paper are former U-M graduate student Zhi Wang, now at Sage Bionetworks in Seattle, Wash., and Ben-Yang Liao of the National Health Research Institutes in Taiwan.
Funding was provided by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the Taiwan National Health Research Institutes.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: http://www.pnas.org/
Win-win strategies for climate and food security
02.10.2017 | International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
The personality factor: How to foster the sharing of research data
06.09.2017 | ZBW – Leibniz-Informationszentrum Wirtschaft
Salmonellae are dangerous pathogens that enter the body via contaminated food and can cause severe infections. But these bacteria are also known to target...
University of Maryland researchers contribute to historic detection of gravitational waves and light created by event
On August 17, 2017, at 12:41:04 UTC, scientists made the first direct observation of a merger between two neutron stars--the dense, collapsed cores that remain...
Seven new papers describe the first-ever detection of light from a gravitational wave source. The event, caused by two neutron stars colliding and merging together, was dubbed GW170817 because it sent ripples through space-time that reached Earth on 2017 August 17. Around the world, hundreds of excited astronomers mobilized quickly and were able to observe the event using numerous telescopes, providing a wealth of new data.
Previous detections of gravitational waves have all involved the merger of two black holes, a feat that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics earlier this month....
Material defects in end products can quickly result in failures in many areas of industry, and have a massive impact on the safe use of their products. This is why, in the field of quality assurance, intelligent, nondestructive sensor systems play a key role. They allow testing components and parts in a rapid and cost-efficient manner without destroying the actual product or changing its surface. Experts from the Fraunhofer IZFP in Saarbrücken will be presenting two exhibits at the Blechexpo in Stuttgart from 7–10 November 2017 that allow fast, reliable, and automated characterization of materials and detection of defects (Hall 5, Booth 5306).
When quality testing uses time-consuming destructive test methods, it can result in enormous costs due to damaging or destroying the products. And given that...
Using a new cooling technique MPQ scientists succeed at observing collisions in a dense beam of cold and slow dipolar molecules.
How do chemical reactions proceed at extremely low temperatures? The answer requires the investigation of molecular samples that are cold, dense, and slow at...
23.10.2017 | Event News
17.10.2017 | Event News
10.10.2017 | Event News
23.10.2017 | Life Sciences
23.10.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
23.10.2017 | Health and Medicine