A general framework of persistence strategies for biological systems helps explain domains of life

Liudmila S. Yafremava, Monica Wielgos, Suravi Thomas, Arshan Nasir, Minglei Wang, Jay E. Mittenthal, Gustavo Caetano-Anollés

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The nature and cause of the division of organisms in superkingdoms is not fully understood. Assuming that environment shapes physiology, here we construct a novel theoretical framework that helps identify general patterns of organism persistence. This framework is based on Jacob von Uexküll's organism-centric view of the environment and James G. Miller's view of organisms as matter-energy-information processing molecular machines. Three concepts describe an organism's environmental niche: scope, umwelt, and gap. Scope denotes the entirety of environmental events and conditions to which the organism is exposed during its lifetime. Umwelt encompasses an organism's perception of these events. The gap is the organism's blind spot, the scope that is not covered by umwelt. These concepts bring organisms of different complexity to a common ecological denominator. Ecological and physiological data suggest organisms persist using three strategies: flexibility, robustness, and economy. All organisms use umwelt information to flexibly adapt to environmental change. They implement robustness against environmental perturbations within the gap generally through redundancy and reliability of internal constituents. Both flexibility and robustness improve survival. However, they also incur metabolic matter-energy processing costs, which otherwise could have been used for growth and reproduction. Lineages evolve unique tradeoff solutions among strategies in the space of what we call "a persistence triangle." Protein domain architecture and other evidence support the preferential use of flexibility and robustness properties. Archaea and Bacteria gravitate toward the triangle's economy vertex, with Archaea biased toward robustness. Eukarya trade economy for survivability. Protista occupy a saddle manifold separating akaryotes from multicellular organisms. Plants and the more flexible Fungi share an economic stratum, and Metazoa are locked in a positive feedback loop toward flexibility.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberArticle 16
JournalFrontiers in Genetics
Issue numberFEB
StatePublished - 2013


  • Economy
  • Flexibility
  • Gap
  • Proteome evolution
  • Redundancy
  • Robustness
  • Scope
  • Umwelt

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Medicine
  • Genetics
  • Genetics(clinical)


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