PHILADELPHIA - Biologists at the University of Pennsylvania studying the processes of evolution appear to have resolved a longstanding conundrum: How can organisms be robust against the effects of mutations yet simultaneously adaptable when the environment changes?
The short answer, according to University of Pennsylvania biologist Joshua B. Plotkin, is that these two requirements are often not contradictory and that an optimal level of robustness maintains the phenotype in one environment but also allows adaptation to environmental change.
Using an original mathematical model, researchers demonstrated that mutational robustness can either impede or facilitate adaptation depending on the population size, the mutation rate and a measure of the reproductive capabilities of a variety of genotypes, called the fitness landscape. The results provide a quantitative understanding of the relationship between robustness and evolvability, clarify a significant ambiguity in evolutionary theory and should help illuminate outstanding problems in molecular and experimental evolution, evolutionary development and protein engineering.
The key insight behind this counterintuitive finding is that neutral mutations can set the stage for future, beneficial adaptation. Specifically, researchers found that more robust populations are faster to adapt when the effects of neutral and beneficial mutations are intertwined. Neutral mutations do not impact the phenotype, but they may influence the effects of subsequent mutations in beneficial ways.
To quantify this idea, the study's authors created a general mathematical model of gene interactions and their effects on an organism's phenotype. When the researchers analyzed the model, they found that populations with intermediate levels of robustness were the fastest to adapt to novel environments. These adaptable populations balanced genetic diversity and the rate of phenotypically penetrant mutati
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University of Pennsylvania