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

Alexander V. Badyaev, Erin S. Morrison, Virginia Belloni, Michael J. Sanderson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


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 - 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 lineage'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 Reviewers' reports section.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number45
JournalBiology Direct
Issue number1
StatePublished - Aug 20 2015


  • Diversification
  • Metabolic distance
  • Metabolic networks
  • Robustness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • Applied Mathematics


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