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Degeneracy: a link between evolvability, robustness and complexity in biological systems

James M Whitacre

Author Affiliations

School of Computer Science, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, UK

Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling 2010, 7:6  doi:10.1186/1742-4682-7-6

Published: 18 February 2010


A full accounting of biological robustness remains elusive; both in terms of the mechanisms by which robustness is achieved and the forces that have caused robustness to grow over evolutionary time. Although its importance to topics such as ecosystem services and resilience is well recognized, the broader relationship between robustness and evolution is only starting to be fully appreciated. A renewed interest in this relationship has been prompted by evidence that mutational robustness can play a positive role in the discovery of adaptive innovations (evolvability) and evidence of an intimate relationship between robustness and complexity in biology.

This paper offers a new perspective on the mechanics of evolution and the origins of complexity, robustness, and evolvability. Here we explore the hypothesis that degeneracy, a partial overlap in the functioning of multi-functional components, plays a central role in the evolution and robustness of complex forms. In support of this hypothesis, we present evidence that degeneracy is a fundamental source of robustness, it is intimately tied to multi-scaled complexity, and it establishes conditions that are necessary for system evolvability.