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Title: The evolutionary dynamics of neutral networks : lessons from RNA
Author: Rendel, Mark D.
ISNI:       0000 0004 2743 6779
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2008
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The evolutionary options of a population are strongly influenced by the avail- ability of adaptive mutants. In this thesis, I use the concept of neutral networks to show that neutral drift can actually increase the accessibility of adaptive mu- tants, and therefore facilitate adaptive evolutionary change. Neutral networks are groups of unique genotypes which all code for the same phenotype, and are connected by simple point mutations. I calculate the size and shape of the networks in a small but exhaustively enumerated space of RNA genotypes by mapping the sequences to RNA secondary structure phenotypes. The qual- itative results are similar to those seen in many other genotype–phenotype map models, despite some significant methodological differences. I show that the boundary of each network has single point–mutation connections to many more phenotypes than the average individual genotype within that network. This means that paths involving a series of neutral point–mutation steps across a network can allow evolution to adaptive phenotypes which would otherwise be extremely unlikely to arise spontaneously. This can be likened to walking along a flat ridge in an adaptive landscape, rather than traversing or jumping across a lower fitness valley. Within this model, when a genotype is made up of just 10 bases, the mean neutral path length is 1.88 point mutations. Furthermore, the map includes some networks that are so convoluted that the path through the network is longer than the direct route between two sequences. A minimum length adaptive walk across the genotype space usually takes as many neutral steps as adaptive ones on its way to the optimum phenotype. Finally I show that the shape of a network can have a very important affect on the number of generations it takes a population to drift across it, and that the more routes between two sequences, the fewer generations required for a population to find an advantageous sequence. My conclusion is that, within the RNA map at least, the size, shape and connectivity of neutral networks all have a profound effect on the way that sequences change and populations evolve, and by not considering them, we risk missing an important evolutionary mechanism.
Supervisor: Grafen, Alan Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Bioinformatics (life sciences) ; Biology ; Genetics (life sciences) ; Evolution (zoology) ; Biology and other natural sciences (mathematics) ; Mathematical biology ; Mathematical genetics and bioinformatics (statistics) ; Applications and algorithms ; RNA folding ; adaptive ; landscape ; fitness ; simulation ; epistasis ; genotype ; phenotype ; map ; point mutation