Adaptation and Exaptation: From Small Molecules to Feathers

Moran Frenkel-Pinter, Anton S. Petrov, Kavita Matange, Michael Travisano, Jennifer B. Glass, Loren Dean Williams*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Evolution works by adaptation and exaptation. At an organismal level, exaptation and adaptation are seen in the formation of organelles and the advent of multicellularity. At the sub-organismal level, molecular systems such as proteins and RNAs readily undergo adaptation and exaptation. Here we suggest that the concepts of adaptation and exaptation are universal, synergistic, and recursive and apply to small molecules such as metabolites, cofactors, and the building blocks of extant polymers. For example, adenosine has been extensively adapted and exapted throughout biological evolution. Chemical variants of adenosine that are products of adaptation include 2′ deoxyadenosine in DNA and a wide array of modified forms in mRNAs, tRNAs, rRNAs, and viral RNAs. Adenosine and its variants have been extensively exapted for various functions, including informational polymers (RNA, DNA), energy storage (ATP), metabolism (e.g., coenzyme A), and signaling (cyclic AMP). According to Gould, Vrba, and Darwin, exaptation imposes a general constraint on interpretation of history and origins; because of exaptation, extant function should not be used to explain evolutionary history. While this notion is accepted in evolutionary biology, it can also guide the study of the chemical origins of life. We propose that (i) evolutionary theory is broadly applicable from the dawn of life to the present time from molecules to organisms, (ii) exaptation and adaptation were important and simultaneous processes, and (iii) robust origin of life models can be constructed without conflating extant utility with historical basis of origins.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)166-175
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Molecular Evolution
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022, The Author(s).


  • Chemical origins of life
  • Evolution
  • Exaptation
  • Metabolites
  • Recursion


Dive into the research topics of 'Adaptation and Exaptation: From Small Molecules to Feathers'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this