Evolutionary Capacitance

Evolutionary capacitance pertains to an organism’s ability to conceal genetic variations without immediate observable changes. When exposed to certain conditions, these hidden variations emerge, facilitating swift adaptation. This principle sheds light on rapid evolutionary responses and the underpinnings of species adaptability.


Evolutionary capacitance refers to the phenomenon where organisms temporarily store genetic variations, which are hidden from selection, allowing these variations to accumulate without producing immediate phenotypic consequences. When an organism faces environmental stress or a change in conditions, this “stored” genetic variation can be “released,” potentially enabling rapid evolution.

Hidden Genetic Variation

  • Cryptic Variation: Genes or mutations that have little to no effect on phenotype under normal conditions but can influence phenotype under certain conditions or when combined with other genetic changes.
  • Epigenetics: Modifications on DNA, or associated proteins, that can alter gene expression without changing the underlying DNA sequence. This can mask or unmask certain genetic effects.

Release Mechanisms

  • Environmental Stress: Stressful conditions can expose hidden variations. For instance, an organism might have a cryptic mutation that only provides a benefit under drought conditions.
  • Genetic or Epigenetic Changes: Certain mutations or epigenetic changes can unmask previously hidden genetic variations.

Role in Evolution

  • Rapid Adaptation: By storing genetic variation, organisms can quickly adapt to changing environments without waiting for beneficial mutations to arise.
  • Bet-Hedging: This mechanism provides a type of “insurance” against future environmental changes, giving populations a better chance of surviving unpredictable shifts.

Modulators of Capacitance

  • Heat Shock Proteins: These proteins, such as Hsp90, are known to buffer genetic variation. When these proteins are overwhelmed or malfunction, they can release previously buffered mutations.
  • Developmental Pathways: The robustness of developmental pathways can suppress or enhance the effects of genetic variation. A disruption in these pathways can expose hidden variation.

Implications for Population Genetics

  • Genetic Drift: Evolutionary capacitance can influence how genetic drift operates, especially when hidden variations become exposed and subject to selection.
  • Genetic Load: The accumulation of hidden deleterious mutations can be considered a form of genetic “load” which, when revealed, can have fitness consequences.

Examples in Nature

  • Yeast: Studies have shown that compromising Hsp90 in yeast can expose a range of morphological changes rooted in hidden genetic variation.
  • Fruit Flies: In certain fly populations, hidden genetic variations affecting wing patterns become visible under heat stress.

Applications and Implications

  • Medicine: Understanding how genetic variation can be masked and then revealed has implications for predicting disease susceptibilities.
  • Conservation: Recognizing the potential for rapid adaptation in populations may be crucial for managing species facing climate change or habitat alterations.