If the world started over, would life evolve the same way?

Desai found that just as a single trip to the gym benefits a couch potato more than an athlete, microbes that started off growing slowly gained a lot more from beneficial mutations than their fitter counterparts that shot out of the gate. “If you lag behind at the beginning because of bad luck, you’ll tend to do better in the future,” Desai said. He compares this phenomenon to the economic principle of diminishing returns — after a certain point, each added unit of effort helps less and less.

Scientists don’t know why all genetic roads in yeast seem to arrive at the same endpoint, a question that Desai and others in the field find particularly intriguing. The yeast developed mutations in many different genes, and scientists found no obvious link among them, so it’s unclear how these genes interact in the cell, if they do at all. “Perhaps there is another layer of metabolism that no one has a handle on,” said Vaughn Cooper, a biologist at the University of New Hampshire who was not involved in the study.