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The ascent of the abundant: how mutational networks constrain evolution.

Abstract

Evolution by natural selection is fundamentally shaped by the fitness landscapes in which it occurs. Yet fitness landscapes are vast and complex, and thus we know relatively little about the long-range constraints they impose on evolutionary dynamics. Here, we exhaustively survey the structural landscapes of RNA molecules of lengths 12 to 18 nucleotides, and develop a network model to describe the relationship between sequence and structure. We find that phenotype abundance--the number of genotypes producing a particular phenotype--varies in a predictable manner and critically influences evolutionary dynamics. A study of naturally occurring functional RNA molecules using a new structural statistic suggests that these molecules are biased toward abundant phenotypes. This supports an "ascent of the abundant" hypothesis, in which evolution yields abundant phenotypes even when they are not the most fit.

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