REVIEW: Optimality models in the age of experimental evolution and genomics


J. J. Bull, The Institute for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Section of Integrative Biology, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX 78712, USA. Tel.: +1 512 471 8266; fax: +1 512 471 3878; e-mail:


Optimality models have been used to predict evolution of many properties of organisms. They typically neglect genetic details, whether by necessity or design. This omission is a common source of criticism, and although this limitation of optimality is widely acknowledged, it has mostly been defended rather than evaluated for its impact. Experimental adaptation of model organisms provides a new arena for testing optimality models and for simultaneously integrating genetics. First, an experimental context with a well-researched organism allows dissection of the evolutionary process to identify causes of model failure – whether the model is wrong about genetics or selection. Second, optimality models provide a meaningful context for the process and mechanics of evolution, and thus may be used to elicit realistic genetic bases of adaptation – an especially useful augmentation to well-researched genetic systems. A few studies of microbes have begun to pioneer this new direction. Incompatibility between the assumed and actual genetics has been demonstrated to be the cause of model failure in some cases. More interestingly, evolution at the phenotypic level has sometimes matched prediction even though the adaptive mutations defy mechanisms established by decades of classic genetic studies. Integration of experimental evolutionary tests with genetics heralds a new wave for optimality models and their extensions that does not merely emphasize the forces driving evolution.