Tradeoff between robustness and elaboration in carotenoid networks produces cycles of avian color diversification



Abstract Background Resolution of the link between micro- and macroevolution calls for comparing both processes on the same deterministic landscape, such as genomic, metabolic or fitness networks. We apply this perspective to the evolution of carotenoid pigmentation that produces spectacular diversity in avian colors and show that basic structural properties of the underlying carotenoid metabolic network are reflected in global patterns of elaboration and diversification in color displays. Birds color themselves by consuming and metabolizing several dietary carotenoids from the environment. Such fundamental dependency on the most upstream external compounds should intrinsically constrain sustained evolutionary elongation of multi-step metabolic pathways needed for color elaboration unless the metabolic network gains robustness â the ability to synthesize the same carotenoid from an additional dietary starting point. Results We found that gains and losses of metabolic robustness were associated with evolutionary cycles of elaboration and stasis in expressed carotenoids in birds. Lack of metabolic robustness constrained lineageâ s metabolic explorations to the immediate biochemical vicinity of their ecologically distinct dietary carotenoids, whereas gains of robustness repeatedly resulted in sustained elongation of metabolic pathways on evolutionary time scales and corresponding color elaboration. Conclusions The structural link between length and robustness in metabolic pathways may explain periodic convergence of phylogenetically distant and ecologically distinct species in expressed carotenoid pigmentation; account for stasis in carotenoid colors in some ecological lineages; and show how the connectivity of the underlying metabolic network provides a mechanistic link between microevolutionary elaboration and macroevolutionary diversification. Reviewers This article was reviewed by Junhyong Kim, Eugene Koonin, and Fyodor Kondrashov. For complete reports, see the Reviewersâ reports section.
Date made available2015

Cite this