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Title: On the significance of neutral spaces in adaptive evolution
Author: Schaper, Steffen
ISNI:       0000 0004 2745 2613
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2012
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Evolutionary dynamics arise from the interplay of mutation and selection. Fundamentally, these two processes operate at different levels: Mutations modify genetic information (the genotype), which is passed from parent to offspring. Selection is triggered by variation in reproductive success, which depends on the physical properties (the phenotype) of an organism and its environment. Thus the genotype-phenotype map determines if and how mutations can lead to selection. The aim of this dissertation is to incorporate this map explicitly into a theoretical description of evolutionary dynamics. The first part of the analysis presented here is concerned with the static properties of simple models of these maps, which are studied using exhaustive enumeration. The two most important observations are phenotypic bias – some phenotypes are realized by many more genotypes than most other phenotypes – and the existence of neutral spaces – genotypes with the same phenotype can often be reached from each other by single mutational steps. The remainder of the dissertation provides a theoretical description of evolutionary dynamics on and across neutral spaces. Two different mean-field approximations lead to simple analytic results for the first discovery of alternative phenotypes, highlighting the importance of phenotypic bias: Rare phenotypes are hard to find by evolutionary search. These results are used to discuss the relationship of robustness, the ability to withstand mutational change, and evolvability, the ability to create variation through mutation. Several types of fluctuations beyond the mean-field limit are studied, both theoretically and in simulations. The discrete structure of genotype spaces can lead to strong correlations in the spectra of phenotypes produced, increasing the probability that a particular phenotype is fixed in the population quickly after its discovery. Structural correlations between genotypes can increase the effect of phenotypic bias, while the qualitative features of the mean-field description remain valid. All these results highlight that neutral spaces impact evolutionary dynamics in many non-trivial ways, in particular by favouring phenotypes of high accessibly, but comparably low fitness over those phenotypes that are highly fit, but very hard to discover.
Supervisor: Louis, Ard A. Sponsor: Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Theoretical physics ; evolutionary dynamics ; genotype-phenotype map ; mutational robustness ; evolvability