Origin of biomolecular games: Deception and molecular evolution

Steven E. Massey, Bud Mishra

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Biological macromolecules encode information: Some of it to endow the molecule with structural flexibility, some of it to enable molecular actions as a catalyst or a substrate, but a residual part can be used to communicate with other macromolecules. Thus, macromolecules do not need to possess information only to survive in an environment, but also to strategically interact with others by sending signals to a receiving macromolecule that can properly interpret the signal and act suitably. These sender-receiver signalling games are sustained by the information asymmetry that exists among the macromolecules. In both biochemistry and molecular evolution, the important role of information asymmetry remains largely unaddressed. Here, we provide a new unifying perspective on the impact of information symmetry between macromolecules on molecular evolutionary processes, while focusing on molecular deception. Biomolecular games arise from the ability of biological macromolecules to exert precise recognition, and their role as units of selection, meaning that they are subject to competition and cooperation with other macromolecules. Thus, signalling game theory can be used to better understand fundamental features of living systems such as molecular recognition, molecular mimicry, selfish elements and 'junk' DNA. We show how deceptive behaviour at the molecular level indicates a conflict of interest, and so provides evidence of genetic conflict. This model proposes that molecular deception is diagnostic of selfish behaviour, helping to explain the evasive behaviour of transposable elements in 'junk' DNA, for example. Additionally, in this broad review, a range of major evolutionary transitions are shown to be associated with the establishment of signalling conventions, many of which are susceptible to molecular deception. These perspectives allow us to assign rudimentary behaviour to macromolecules, and show how participation in signalling games differentiates biochemistry from abiotic chemistry.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number0429
JournalJournal of the Royal Society Interface
Issue number146
StatePublished - Sep 1 2018


  • information asymmetry
  • molecular mimicry
  • signalling convention
  • signalling games

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Biophysics
  • Bioengineering
  • Biomaterials
  • Biochemistry
  • Biomedical Engineering


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