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Genetics. 2002 Apr;160(4):1273-81.

Dependence of epistasis on environment and mutation severity as revealed by in silico mutagenesis of phage t7.

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Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin 53706, USA.


Understanding how interactions among deleterious mutations affect fitness may shed light on a variety of fundamental biological phenomena, including the evolution of sex, the buffering of genetic variations, and the topography of fitness landscapes. It remains an open question under what conditions and to what extent such interactions may be synergistic or antagonistic. To address this question, we employed a computer model for the intracellular growth of bacteriophage T7. We created in silico 90,000 mutants of phage T7, each carrying from 1 to 30 mutations, and evaluated the fitness of each by simulating its growth cycle. The simulations sought to account for the severity of single deleterious mutations on T7 growth, as well as the effect of the resource environment on our fitness measures. We found that mildly deleterious mutations interacted synergistically in poor-resource environments but antagonistically in rich-resource environments. However, severely deleterious mutations always interacted antagonistically, irrespective of environment. These results suggest that synergistic epistasis may be difficult to experimentally distinguish from nonepistasis because its effects appear to be most pronounced when the effects of mutations on fitness are most challenging to measure. Our approach demonstrates how computer simulations of developmental processes can be used to quantitatively study genetic interactions at the population level.

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