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Evolution. 2009 Sep;63(9):2350-62. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2009.00729.x. Epub 2009 May 21.

The evolution of reversible switches in the presence of irreversible mimics.

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  • 1Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721, USA.


Reversible phenotypic switching can be caused by a number of different mechanisms including epigenetic inheritance systems and DNA-based contingency loci. Previous work has shown that reversible switching systems may be favored by natural selection. Many switches can be characterized as "on/off" where the "off" state constitutes a temporary and reversible loss of function. Loss-of-function phenotypes corresponding to the "off" state can be produced in many different ways, all yielding identical fitness in the short term. In the long term, however, a switch-induced loss of function can be reversed, whereas many loss-of-function mutations, especially deletions, cannot. We refer to these loss-of-function mutations as "irreversible mimics" of the reversible switch. Here, we develop a model in which a reversible switch evolves in the presence of both irreversible mimics and metapopulation structure. We calculate that when the rate of appearance of irreversible mimics exceeds the migration rate, the evolved reversible switching rate will exceed the bet-hedging rate predicted by panmictic models.

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