Buying time

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Science  30 Nov 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6418, pp. 988-991
DOI: 10.1126/science.362.6418.988

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Phenotypic plasticity is the ability of an organism to change how it looks, acts, and functions, during its lifetime, in response to its environment. In 2003, evolutionary biologist Mary Jane West-Eberhard of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City raised eyebrows by suggesting such phenotypic plasticity might also set the stage for the evolution of permanent adaptations. Some biologists likened this perspective to a long-discredited idea, made famous by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, that acquired traits could be inherited. But now biologists have shown in multiple organisms, including toads, lizards, roundworms, and yeast, that a plastic response can buy time for adaptive mutations to arise and become fixed. As biologists explore the underpinnings of plasticity and how it can lead to permanent change, they've uncovered a process that extends traditional evolutionary mechanisms rather than challenging them.