Overcoming the stress of starvation is one of an organism’s most challenging phenotypic responses. Those organisms that frequently survive the challenge, by virtue of their fitness, will have evolved genomes that are shaped by their specific environments. Understanding this genotype–environment–phenotype relationship at a deep level will require quantitative predictive models of the complex molecular systems that link these aspects of an organism’s existence. Here, we treat one of the most fundamental molecular systems, protein synthesis, and the amino acid biosynthetic pathways involved in the stringent response to starvation. These systems face an inherent logical dilemma: Building an amino acid biosynthetic pathway to synthesize its product—the cognate amino acid of the pathway—may require that very amino acid when it is no longer available.

cognateAminoacidBiasTo study this potential “catch-22,” we have created a generic model of amino acid biosynthesis in response to sudden starvation. Our mathematical analysis and computational results indicate that there are two distinctly different outcomes: Partial recovery to a new steady state, or full system failure. Moreover, the cell’s fate is dictated by the cognate bias, the number of cognate amino acids in the corresponding biosynthetic pathway relative to the average number of that amino acid in the proteome. We test these implications by analyzing the proteomes of over 1,800 sequenced microbes, which reveals statistically significant evidence of low cognate bias, a genetic trait that would avoid the biosynthetic quandary. Furthermore, these results suggest that the pattern of cognate bias, which is readily derived by genome sequencing, may provide evolutionary clues to an organism’s natural environment.