Cryptic Genetic Variation Can Make Irreducible Complexity a Common Mode of Adaptation

Cryptic Genetic Variation Can Make Irreducible Complexity a Common Mode of Adaptation
Meredith V. Trotter, Daniel B. Weissman, Grant I. Peterson, Kayla M. Peck, Joanna Masel
(Submitted on 22 Oct 2013)

The existence of complex (multiple-step) genetic adaptations that are “irreducible” (i.e., all partial combinations are less fit than the original genotype) is one of the longest standing problems in evolutionary biology. In standard genetics parlance, these adaptations require the crossing of a wide adaptive valley of deleterious intermediate stages. Here we demonstrate, using a simple model, that evolution can cross wide valleys to produce “irreducibly complex” adaptations by making use of previously cryptic mutations. When revealed by an evolutionary capacitor, previously cryptic mutants have higher initial frequencies than do new mutations, bringing them closer to a valley-crossing saddle in allele frequency space. Moreover, simple combinatorics imply an enormous number of candidate combinations exist within available cryptic genetic variation. We model the dynamics of crossing of a wide adaptive valley after a capacitance event using both numerical simulations and analytical approximations. Although individual valley crossing events become less likely as valleys widen, by taking the combinatorics of genotype space into account, we see that revealing cryptic variation can cause the frequent evolution of complex adaptations. This finding also effectively dismantles “irreducible complexity” as an argument against evolution by providing a general mechanism for crossing wide adaptive valleys.

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