The evolutionary paths towards complexity: a metabolic perspective


  • Jing-Ke Weng

    Corresponding author
    1. Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and Department of Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA
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      Jing-Ke Weng

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As sessile organisms, land plants have exploited their metabolic systems to produce a panoply of structurally and functionally diverse natural chemicals and polymers to adapt to challenging ecosystems. Many of these core and specialized metabolites confer chemical shields against a multitude of abiotic stresses, while others play important roles in plants' interactions with their biotic environments. Plant specialized metabolites can be viewed as complex traits in the sense that the biosynthesis of these molecules typically requires multistep metabolic pathways comprising numerous specific enzymes belonging to diverse protein fold families. Resolving the evolutionary trajectories underlying the emergence of these specialized metabolic pathways will impact a fundamental question in biology – how do complex traits evolve in a Darwinian fashion? Here, I discuss several general patterns observed in rapidly evolving specialized metabolic systems in plants, and surmise mechanistic features at enzyme, pathway and organismal levels that rationalize the remarkable malleability of these systems through stepwise evolution. Future studies, focused on fine sampling of metabolic enzymes and pathways in phylogenetically related plant species, or employing directed evolution strategies in synthetic systems, will significantly broaden our perspective on how biological complexity arises at the metabolic level.