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Messy biology and the origins of evolutionary innovations

Biological messiness relates to infidelity, heterogeneity, stochastic noise and variation—both genetic and phenotypic—at all levels, from single proteins to organisms. Messiness comes from the complexity and evolutionary history of biological systems and from the high cost of accuracy. For better or for worse, messiness is inherent to biology. It also provides the raw material for physiological and evolutionary adaptations to new challenges.

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Figure 1: The correlation of phenotypic and genetic variances and the origins of evolutionary innovations.
Figure 2: Promiscuous enzyme functions (protein messiness) mediate physiological and evolutionary adaptations in the arginine and proline biosynthetic pathways.


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The author is grateful to J. Noel for inspirational discussions and for a comment he made in the opening of his seminar at the Weizmann Institute—“Biology is messy”—used in this article. He is also grateful to R. Milo, E. Braun, N. Balaban, B. Lehner and S. Stern for insightful and enjoyable discussions and valuable comments. Financial support from the Israel Science Foundation and the Sasson and Marjorie Peress Foundation are gratefully acknowledged. The author is the Nella and Leon Benoziyo Professor of Biochemistry.

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Correspondence to Dan S Tawfik.

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Tawfik, D. Messy biology and the origins of evolutionary innovations. Nat Chem Biol 6, 692–696 (2010).

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