Robustness and evolvability of heterogeneous cell populations

Andrei Kucharavy, Boris Rubinstein, Jin Zhu, Rong Li

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Biological systems are endowed with two fundamental but seemingly contradictory properties: robustness, the ability to withstand environmental fluctuations and genetic variability; and evolvability, the ability to acquire selectable and heritable phenotypic changes. Cell populations with heterogeneous genetic makeup, such as those of infectious microbial organisms or cancer, rely on their inherent robustness to maintain viability and fitness, but when encountering environmental insults, such as drug treatment, these populations are also poised for rapid adaptation through evolutionary selection. In this study, we develop a general mathematical model that allows us to explain and quantify this fundamental relationship between robustness and evolvability of heterogeneous cell populations. Our model predicts that robustness is, in fact, essential for evolvability, especially for more adverse environments, a trend we observe in aneuploid budding yeast and breast cancer cells. Robustness also compensates for the negative impact of the systems’ complexity on their evolvability. Our model also provides a mathematical means to estimate the number of independent processes underlying a system’s performance and identify the most generally adapted subpopulation, which may resemble the multi-drug-resistant “persister” cells observed in cancer.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1400-1409
Number of pages10
JournalMolecular biology of the cell
Issue number11
StatePublished - Jun 1 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Biology
  • Cell Biology


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