The effect of mutational robustness on the evolvability of multicellular organisms and eukaryotic cells

Jiang P, Kreitman M, Reinitz R. 2023. Journal of Evolutionary Biology


Canalization involves mutational robustness, the lack of phenotypic change as a result of genetic mutations. Given the large divergence in phenotype across species, understanding the relationship between high robustness and evolvability has been of interest to both the orists and experimentalists. Although canalization was originally proposed in the context of multicellular organisms, the effect of multicellularity and other classes of hierarchical or ganization on evolvability has not been considered by theoreticians. We address this issue using a Boolean population model with explicit representation of an environment in which individuals with explicit genotype and a hierarchical phenotype representing multicellularity evolve. Robustness is described by a single real number between zero and one which emerges from the genotype-phenotype map. We find that high robustness is favored in constant environments, and lower robustness is favored after environmental change. Multicellularity and hierarchical organization severely constrain robustness: peak evolvability occurs at an absolute level of robustness of about 0.99 compared with values of about 0.5 in a classical neutral network model. These constraints result in a sharp peak of evolvability in which the maximum is set by the fact that the fixation of adaptive mutations becomes more improbable as robustness decreases. When robustness is put under genetic control, robustness levels leading to maximum evolvability are selected for, but maximal relative fitness appears to require recombination.