Genotype-Phenotype Maps

Biological Theory 1 (3):268-279 (2006)
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The current implementation of the Neo-Darwinian model of evolution typically assumes that the set of possible phenotypes is organized into a highly symmetric and regular space. Most conveniently, a Euclidean vector space is used, representing phenotypic properties by real-valued variables. Computational work on the biophysical genotype-phenotype model of RNA folding, however, suggests a rather different picture. If phenotypes are organized according to genetic accessibility, the resulting space lacks a metric and can be formalized only in terms of a relatively unfamiliar structure. Patterns of phenotypic evolution—such as punctuation, irreversibility, and modularity—result naturally from the properties of the genotype-phenotype map, which, given the genetic accessibility structure, define accessibility in the phenotype space. The classical framework, however, addresses these patterns exclusively in terms of natural selection on suitably constructed fitness landscapes. Recent work has extended the explanatory level for phenotypic evolution from fitness considerations alone to include the topological structure of phenotype space as induced by the genotype-phenotype map. Lewontin’s notion of “quasi-independence” of characters can also be formalized in topological terms: it corresponds to the assumption that a region of the phenotype space is represented by a product space of orthogonal factors. In this picture, each character corresponds to a factor of a region of the phenotype space. We consider any region of the phenotype space that has a given factorization as a “type”, i.e., as a set of phenotypes that share the same set of phenotypic characters. Thus, a theory of character identity can be developed that is based on the correspondence of local factors in different regions of the phenotype space



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