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Theory Biosci. 2011 Mar;130(1):71-89. doi: 10.1007/s12064-010-0110-z. Epub 2010 Sep 1.

Mathematical modeling of evolution. Solved and open problems.

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  • 1Institut für Theoretische Chemmie, Universität Wien, Währingerstraße 17, 1090, Wien, Austria.


Evolution is a highly complex multilevel process and mathematical modeling of evolutionary phenomenon requires proper abstraction and radical reduction to essential features. Examples are natural selection, Mendel's laws of inheritance, optimization by mutation and selection, and neutral evolution. An attempt is made to describe the roots of evolutionary theory in mathematical terms. Evolution can be studied in vitro outside cells with polynucleotide molecules. Replication and mutation are visualized as chemical reactions that can be resolved, analyzed, and modeled at the molecular level, and straightforward extension eventually results in a theory of evolution based upon biochemical kinetics. Error propagation in replication commonly results in an error threshold that provides an upper bound for mutation rates. Appearance and sharpness of the error threshold depend on the fitness landscape, being the distribution of fitness values in genotype or sequence space. In molecular terms, fitness landscapes are the results of two consecutive mappings from sequences into structures and from structures into the (nonnegative) real numbers. Some properties of genotype-phenotype maps are illustrated well by means of sequence-structure relations of RNA molecules. Neutrality in the sense that many RNA sequences form the same (coarse grained) structure is one of these properties, and characteristic for such mappings. Evolution cannot be fully understood without considering fluctuations--each mutant originates form a single copy, after all. The existence of neutral sets of genotypes called neutral networks, in particular, necessitates stochastic modeling, which is introduced here by simulation of molecular evolution in a kind of flowreactor.

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