Rapid bursts and slow declines: On the possible evolutionary trajectories of enzymes

Matilda S. Newton, Vickery L. Arcus, Wayne M. Patrick

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


The evolution of enzymes is often viewed as following a smooth and steady trajectory, from barely functional primordial catalysts to the highly active and specific enzymes that we observe today. In this review, we summarize experimental data that suggest a different reality. Modern examples, such as the emergence of enzymes that hydrolyse human-made pesticides, demonstrate that evolution can be extraordinarily rapid. Experiments to infer and resurrect ancient sequences suggest that some of the first organisms present on the Earth are likely to have possessed highly active enzymes. Reconciling these observations, we argue that rapid bursts of strong selection for increased catalytic efficiency are interspersed with much longer periods in which the catalytic power of an enzyme erodes, through neutral drift and selection for other properties such as cellular energy efficiency or regulation. Thus, many enzymes may have already passed their catalytic peaks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20150036
JournalJournal of the Royal Society Interface
Issue number107
StatePublished - Jun 6 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.


  • Activity threshold
  • Adaptive evolution
  • Ancestral sequence reconstruction
  • Catalytic efficiency


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