Quantitative evolutionary design of glucose 6-phosphate dehydrogenase expression in human erythrocytes

Armindo Salvador, Michael A. Savageau

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Why do the activities of some enzymes greatly exceed the flux capacity of the embedding pathways? This is a puzzling open problem in quantitative evolutionary design. In this work we investigate reasons for high expression of a thoroughly characterized enzyme: glucose 6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) in human erythrocytes. G6PD catalyses the first step of the pathway that supplies NADPH for antioxidant defense mechanisms. Normal G6PD activity far exceeds the capacity of human erythrocytes for a steady NADPH supply, which is limited upstream of G6PD. However, the distribution of erythrocyte G6PD activity in human populations reveals a selective pressure for maintaining high activity. To clarify the nature of this selective pressure, we studied how G6PD activity and other parameters in a model of the NADPH redox cycle affect metabolic performance. Our analysis indicates that normal G6PD activity is sufficient but not superfluous to avoid NADPH depletion and ensure timely adaptation of the NADPH supply during pulses of oxidative load such as those that occur during adherence of erythrocytes to phagocytes. These results suggest that large excess capacities found in some biochemical and physiological systems, rather than representing large safety factors, may reflect a close match of system design to unscrutinized performance requirements. Understanding quantitative evolutionary design thus calls for careful consideration of the various performance specifications that biological components/processes must meet in order for the organism to be fit. The biochemical systems framework used in this paper is generally applicable for such a detailed examination of the quantitative evolutionary design of gene expression levels in other systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)14463-14468
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue numberSUPPL. 2
StatePublished - Nov 25 2003

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics
  • General


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