Biological systems are robust to perturbation by mutations and environmental fluctuations. New data are shedding light on the biochemical and network-level mechanisms responsible for robustness. Robustness to mutation might have evolved as an adaptation to reduce the effect of mutations, as a congruent byproduct of adaptive robustness to environmental variation, or as an intrinsic property of biological systems selected for their primary functions. Whatever its mechanism or origin, robustness to mutation results in the accumulation of phenotypically cryptic genetic variation. Partial robustness can lead to pre-adaptation, and thereby might contribute to evolvability. The identification and characterization of phenotypic capacitors - which act as switches of the degree of robustness - are critical to understanding the mechanisms and consequences of robustness.
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