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Open Access Research article

Proportionality between variances in gene expression induced by noise and mutation: consequence of evolutionary robustness

Kunihiko Kaneko

Author affiliations

Department of Basic Science, Univ. of Tokyo, and Complex Systems Biology Project, ERATO, JST, 3-8-1 Komaba, Meguro-ku, Tokyo 153-8902, Japan

Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:27  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-27

Published: 26 January 2011



Characterization of robustness and plasticity of phenotypes is a basic issue in evolutionary and developmental biology. The robustness and plasticity are concerned with changeability of a biological system against external perturbations. The perturbations are either genetic, i.e., due to mutations in genes in the population, or epigenetic, i.e., due to noise during development or environmental variations. Thus, the variances of phenotypes due to genetic and epigenetic perturbations provide quantitative measures for such changeability during evolution and development, respectively.


Using numerical models simulating the evolutionary changes in the gene regulation network required to achieve a particular expression pattern, we first confirmed that gene expression dynamics robust to mutation evolved in the presence of a sufficient level of transcriptional noise. Under such conditions, the two types of variances in the gene expression levels, i.e. those due to mutations to the gene regulation network and those due to noise in gene expression dynamics were found to be proportional over a number of genes. The fraction of such genes with a common proportionality coefficient increased with an increase in the robustness of the evolved network. This proportionality was generally confirmed, also under the presence of environmental fluctuations and sexual recombination in diploids, and was explained from an evolutionary robustness hypothesis, in which an evolved robust system suppresses the so-called error catastrophe - the destabilization of the single-peaked distribution in gene expression levels. Experimental evidences for the proportionality of the variances over genes are also discussed.


The proportionality between the genetic and epigenetic variances of phenotypes implies the correlation between the robustness (or plasticity) against genetic changes and against noise in development, and also suggests that phenotypic traits that are more variable epigenetically have a higher evolutionary potential.