Evolution of genetic potential.


Organisms employ a multitude of strategies to cope with the dynamical environments in which they live. Homeostasis and physiological plasticity buffer changes within the lifetime of an organism, while stochastic developmental programs and hypermutability track changes on longer time-scales. An alternative long-term mechanism is "genetic potential"--a heightened sensitivity to the effects of mutation that facilitates rapid evolution to novel states. Using a transparent mathematical model, we illustrate the concept of genetic potential and show that as environmental variability decreases, the evolving population reaches three distinct steady state conditions: (1) organismal flexibility, (2) genetic potential, and (3) genetic robustness. As a specific example of this concept we examine fluctuating selection for hydrophobicity in a single amino acid. We see the same three stages, suggesting that environmental fluctuations can produce allele distributions that are distinct not only from those found under constant conditions, but also from the transient allele distributions that arise under isolated selective sweeps.

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