Populations of genetic circuits are unable to find the fittest solution in a multilevel genotype-phenotype map

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The Royal Society
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The evolution of gene regulatory networks (GRNs) is of great relevance for both evolutionary and synthetic biology. Understanding the relationship between GRN structure and its function can allow us to understand the selective pressures that have shaped a given circuit. This is especially relevant when considering spatio-temporal expression patterns, where GRN models have been shown to be extremely robust and evolvable. However, previous models that studied GRN evolution did not include the evolution of protein and genetic elements that underlie GRN architecture. Here we use toyLIFE, a multilevel genotype-phenotype map, to show that not all GRNs are equally likely in genotype space and that evolution is biased to find the most common GRNs. toyLIFE rules create Boolean GRNs that, embedded in a one-dimensional tissue, develop a variety of spatio-temporal gene expression patterns. Populations of toyLIFE organisms choose the most common GRN out of a set of equally fit alternatives and, most importantly, fail to find a target pattern when it is very rare in genotype space. Indeed, we show that the probability of finding the fittest phenotype increases dramatically with its abundance in genotype space. This phenotypic bias represents a mechanism that can prevent the fixation in the population of the fittest phenotype, one that is inherent to the structure of genotype space and the genotype-phenotype map.
Phenotypic bias, Genetic circuits, Genotype–phenotype map, Gene regulatory networks, Entropy, ToyLIFE
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Journal of the Royal Society Interface, (June 2020), 17(167), pp.: 1-9.