• Adaptation;
  • epistasis;
  • gene regulation;
  • models/simulations;
  • natural selection

When multiple substitutions affect a trait in opposing ways, they are often assumed to be compensatory, not only with respect to the trait, but also with respect to fitness. This type of compensatory evolution has been suggested to underlie the evolution of protein structures and interactions, RNA secondary structures, and gene regulatory modules and networks. The possibility for compensatory evolution results from epistasis. Yet if epistasis is widespread, then it is also possible that the opposing substitutions are individually adaptive. I term this possibility an adaptive reversal. Although possible for arbitrary phenotype-fitness mappings, it has not yet been investigated whether such epistasis is prevalent in a biologically realistic setting. I investigate a particular regulatory circuit, the type I coherent feed-forward loop, which is ubiquitous in natural systems and is accurately described by a simple mathematical model. I show that such reversals are common during adaptive evolution, can result solely from the topology of the fitness landscape, and can occur even when adaptation follows a modest environmental change and the network was well adapted to the original environment. The possibility of adaptive reversals warrants a systems perspective when interpreting substitution patterns in gene regulatory networks.