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Open Access Research article

Robustness promotes evolvability of thermotolerance in an RNA virus

Robert C McBride*, C Brandon Ogbunugafor and Paul E Turner

Author Affiliations

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 06520-8106, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:231  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-231

Published: 11 August 2008



The ability for an evolving population to adapt to a novel environment is achieved through a balance of robustness and evolvability. Robustness is the invariance of phenotype in the face of perturbation and evolvability is the capacity to adapt in response to selection. Genetic robustness has been posited, depending on the underlying mechanism, to either decrease the efficacy of selection, or increase the possibility of future adaptation. However, the true effect of genetic robustness on evolvability in biological systems remains uncertain.


Here we demonstrate that genetic robustness increases evolvability of thermotolerance in laboratory populations of the RNA virus φ6. We observed that populations founded by robust clones evolved greater resistance to heat shock, relative to populations founded by brittle (less-robust) clones. Thus, we provide empirical evidence for the idea that robustness can promote evolvability in this environment, and further suggest that evolvability can arise indirectly via selection for robustness, rather than through direct selective action.


Our data imply that greater tolerance of mutational change is associated with virus adaptability in a new niche, a finding generally relevant to evolutionary biology, and informative for elucidating how viruses might evolve to emerge in new habitats and/or overcome novel therapies.