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Molecular evolution of stochastic switching

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While fitness benefits of phenotypic variance (i.e. stochastic switching) under fluctuating environments has been shown both experimentally and theoretically, it is not well understood if fluctuating environments can result in incremental evolution of molecular mechanisms that underpin this phenomena. A potential molecular mechanism that can lead to stochastic switching is noisy bistable dynamics in gene regulation. In this talk, I will summarise results from an in silico evolution study where we have simulated molecular evolution of a simple regulatory network consisting of a single gene under fluctuating selection on gene expression levels. We find that the main outcome of fluctuating selection is the evolution of increased evolvability in the network; system parameters evolve towards a nonlinear regime where small changes cause large changes in expression level. In contrast to this broad observation of increased evolvability, we find that bistability evolves only under environments with specific type of fluctuations and in presence of noise. We find that both evolvability and bistability evolve only in a range of specific environmental fluctuation rates, however, once evolved they are maintained under a broader range of rates. These results provide the first direct evidence that bistability and stochastic switching in a gene regulatory network can emerge as a mechanism to cope with fluctuating environments.

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