ENVIRONMENTAL ROBUSTNESS AND THE ADAPTABILITY OF POPULATIONS

Authors


Abstract

Recent work has shown that genetic robustness can either facilitate or impede adaptation. But the impact of environmental robustness on adaptation remains unclear. Environmental robustness helps ensure that organisms consistently develop the same phenotype in the face of “environmental noise” during development. Under purifying selection, those genotypes that express the optimal phenotype most reliably will be selectively favored. The resulting reduction in genetic variation tends to slow adaptation when the population is faced with a novel target phenotype. However, environmental noise sometimes induces the expression of an alternative advantageous phenotype, which may speed adaptation by genetic assimilation. Here, we use a population-genetic model to explore how these two opposing effects of environmental noise influence the capacity of a population to adapt. We analyze how the rate of adaptation depends on the frequency of environmental noise, the degree of environmental robustness in the population, the distribution of environmental robustness across genotypes, the population size, and the strength of selection for a newly adaptive phenotype. Over a broad regime, we find that environmental noise can either facilitate or impede adaptation. Our analysis uncovers several surprising insights about the relationship between environmental noise and adaptation, and it provides a general framework for interpreting empirical studies of both genetic and environmental robustness.

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