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Keywords:

  • antagonistic pleiotropy;
  • bet-hedging;
  • cell selection;
  • epigenetic drift;
  • epigenetic gambling;
  • epigenetics;
  • evolutionary biology;
  • stochastic mechanisms

Summary

Generations of biogerontologists have been puzzled by the marked intraspecific variations in lifespan of their experimental model organisms despite all efforts to control both genotype and environment. The most cogent example comes from life table studies of wild-type Caenorhabditis elegans when grown in suspension cultures using axenic media. While nuclear and mitochondrial somatic mutations and ‘thermodynamic noise’ likely contribute to such lifespan variegations, I raise an additional hypothetical mechanism, one that may have evolved as a mechanism of phenotypic variation which could have preceded the evolution of meiotic recombination. I suggest that random changes in cellular gene expression (cellular epigenetic gambling or bet hedging) evolved as an adaptive mechanism to ensure survival of members of a group in the face of unpredictable environmental challenges. Once activated, it could lead to progressive epigenetic variegation (epigenetic drift) amongst all members of the group. Thus, while particular patterns of gene expression would be adaptive for a subset of reproductive individuals within a population early in life, once initiated, I predict that continued epigenetic drift will result in variable onsets and patterns of pathophysiology – perhaps yet another example of antagonistic pleiotropic gene action in the genesis of senescent phenotypes. The weakness of this hypothesis is that we do not currently have a plausible molecular mechanism for the putative genetic ‘randomizer’ of epigenetic expression, particularly one whose ‘setting’ may be responsive to the ecology in which a given species evolves. I offer experimental approaches, however, to search for the elusive epigenetic gambler(s).