Slow and steady mutations save the species.

Or at least, Astrobiology says, save the species’ descendants. The secret of survival, on an evolutionary scale, isn’t a single lucky mutant, but a whole “relay team” of freaks that turn out to be pretty good at coping (and making babies) in the long run:

Now University of Washington biologists using populations of microorganisms have shed light for the first time on a second reason. They found that the mutation that wins the race in the harshest environment is often dependent on a “relay team” of other mutations that came before, mutations that emerge only as conditions worsen at gradual and moderate rates.

Without the winners from those first “legs” of the survival race, it’s unlikely there will even be a runner in the anchor position when conditions become extreme.

“That’s a problem given the number of factors on the planet being changed with unprecedented rapidity under the banner of climate change and other human-caused changes,” said Benjamin Kerr, UW assistant professor of biology.