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Keywords:

  • evolvability;
  • experimental evolution;
  • genetic variation;
  • beneficial mutations;
  • mutator;
  • genetic hitchhiking

Abstract

The vast number of species we see around us today, all stemming from a common ancestor, clearly demonstrates the capacity of organisms to adapt to new environments. Understanding the underlying basis of differences in the capacity of genotypes to adapt – that is, their evolvability – has become a major research field. Several mechanisms have been demonstrated to influence evolvability, including differences in mutation rate, mutational robustness, and some kinds of gene interactions. However, the benefits of increased evolvability are indirect, so that the conditions required for selection of evolvability traits are expected to be more limited than for traits that confer immediately beneficial phenotypes. Moreover, just because a trait can affect evolvability does not mean that it actually does so in a particular environment. Instead, some other function of the trait may better explain its success. Nevertheless, there is accumulating experimental evidence that some traits can increase the evolvability of a genotype and that these traits do influence evolutionary outcomes. We discuss recent theory and experiments that demonstrate the potential for traits that influence evolvability to arise and be selected.