Updated on November 18, 2015
Imagine that you wake up in a pit, surrounded by people who are all wounded and bleeding. Something had clearly gone horribly wrong. Maybe you panic. Maybe you tend to the wounded. Maybe you team up to plan an escape. But if you’re a red flour beetle, you do none of those things. Instead, you quietly become more evolvable.
When Joachim Kurtz from the University of Münster placed healthy beetles among wounded peers, he found that they can unveil mutations that are present in their genomes but whose effects are usually masked. By exposing these hidden mutations, the beetles don’t gain any benefits themselves, but they increase the odds that the next generation will be better adapted to the challenges are at hand.
Here’s how it works. Genes contain instructions for making proteins—molecules that fold into complex three-dimensional shapes. Mutations in the genes can change the shape of the resulting proteins, which affects how well they work. But even if a mutation can change the shape of a protein, that doesn’t mean it will.
Whether it will depends upon HSP90, a protein that helps other proteins to fold. Think of HSP90 as the head of an origami school: It’s stuffy and old-fashioned, strictly enforcing a traditional style upon its students. They might be tempted to try something new, but HSP90 won’t let them. So, despite their individual proclivities, their works all look the same. Now, if you fire HSP90, the students get to exercise their full creative streak, carrying out new innovative folds and producing a diverse range of protein creations.