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      Facilitated Variation: How Evolution Learns from Past Environments To Generalize to New Environments


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      PLoS Computational Biology

      Public Library of Science

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          One of the striking features of evolution is the appearance of novel structures in organisms. Recently, Kirschner and Gerhart have integrated discoveries in evolution, genetics, and developmental biology to form a theory of facilitated variation (FV). The key observation is that organisms are designed such that random genetic changes are channeled in phenotypic directions that are potentially useful. An open question is how FV spontaneously emerges during evolution. Here, we address this by means of computer simulations of two well-studied model systems, logic circuits and RNA secondary structure. We find that evolution of FV is enhanced in environments that change from time to time in a systematic way: the varying environments are made of the same set of subgoals but in different combinations. We find that organisms that evolve under such varying goals not only remember their history but also generalize to future environments, exhibiting high adaptability to novel goals. Rapid adaptation is seen to goals composed of the same subgoals in novel combinations, and to goals where one of the subgoals was never seen in the history of the organism. The mechanisms for such enhanced generation of novelty (generalization) are analyzed, as is the way that organisms store information in their genomes about their past environments. Elements of facilitated variation theory, such as weak regulatory linkage, modularity, and reduced pleiotropy of mutations, evolve spontaneously under these conditions. Thus, environments that change in a systematic, modular fashion seem to promote facilitated variation and allow evolution to generalize to novel conditions.

          Author Summary

          One of the striking features of evolution is the appearance of novel structures in organisms. The origin of the ability to generate novelty is one of the main mysteries in evolutionary theory. The molecular mechanisms that enhance the evolution of novelty were recently integrated by Kirschner and Gerhart in their theory of facilitated variation. This theory suggests that organisms have a design that makes it more likely that random genetic changes will result in organisms with novel shapes that can survive. Here we demonstrate how facilitated variation can arise in computer simulations of evolution. We propose a quantitative approach for studying facilitated variation in computational model systems. We find that the evolution of facilitated variation is enhanced in environments that change from time to time in a systematic way: the varying environments are made of the same set of subgoals, but in different combinations. Under such varying conditions, the simulated organisms store information about past environments in their genome, and develop a special modular design that can readily generate novel modules.

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          Most cited references53

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          Vienna RNA secondary structure server.

          The Vienna RNA secondary structure server provides a web interface to the most frequently used functions of the Vienna RNA software package for the analysis of RNA secondary structures. It currently offers prediction of secondary structure from a single sequence, prediction of the consensus secondary structure for a set of aligned sequences and the design of sequences that will fold into a predefined structure. All three services can be accessed via the Vienna RNA web server at http://rna.tbi.univie.ac.at/.
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            Stochasticity in gene expression: from theories to phenotypes.

            Genetically identical cells exposed to the same environmental conditions can show significant variation in molecular content and marked differences in phenotypic characteristics. This variability is linked to stochasticity in gene expression, which is generally viewed as having detrimental effects on cellular function with potential implications for disease. However, stochasticity in gene expression can also be advantageous. It can provide the flexibility needed by cells to adapt to fluctuating environments or respond to sudden stresses, and a mechanism by which population heterogeneity can be established during cellular differentiation and development.
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              Spontaneous evolution of modularity and network motifs.

              Biological networks have an inherent simplicity: they are modular with a design that can be separated into units that perform almost independently. Furthermore, they show reuse of recurring patterns termed network motifs. Little is known about the evolutionary origin of these properties. Current models of biological evolution typically produce networks that are highly nonmodular and lack understandable motifs. Here, we suggest a possible explanation for the origin of modularity and network motifs in biology. We use standard evolutionary algorithms to evolve networks. A key feature in this study is evolution under an environment (evolutionary goal) that changes in a modular fashion. That is, we repeatedly switch between several goals, each made of a different combination of subgoals. We find that such "modularly varying goals" lead to the spontaneous evolution of modular network structure and network motifs. The resulting networks rapidly evolve to satisfy each of the different goals. Such switching between related goals may represent biological evolution in a changing environment that requires different combinations of a set of basic biological functions. The present study may shed light on the evolutionary forces that promote structural simplicity in biological networks and offers ways to improve the evolutionary design of engineered systems.

                Author and article information

                Role: Editor
                PLoS Comput Biol
                PLoS Computational Biology
                Public Library of Science (San Francisco, USA )
                November 2008
                November 2008
                7 November 2008
                : 4
                : 11
                [1]Department of Molecular Cell Biology, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel
                Washington University, United States of America
                Author notes

                Conceived and designed the experiments: MP NK UA. Performed the experiments: MP. Analyzed the data: MP NK UA. Wrote the paper: MP NK UA.

                Parter et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
                Page count
                Pages: 15
                Research Article
                Computational Biology/Evolutionary Modeling
                Evolutionary Biology/Bioinformatics

                Quantitative & Systems biology


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