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BMC Evol Biol. 2010 Nov 24;10:361. doi: 10.1186/1471-2148-10-361.

Eco-evolutionary dynamics, coding structure and the information threshold.

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Utrecht University, Netherlands.



The amount of information that can be maintained in an evolutionary system of replicators is limited by genome length, the number of errors during replication (mutation rate) and various external factors that influence the selection pressure. To date, this phenomenon, known as the information threshold, has been studied (both genotypically and phenotypically) in a constant environment and with respect to maintenance (as opposed to accumulation) of information. Here we take a broader perspective on this problem by studying the accumulation of information in an ecosystem, given an evolvable coding structure. Moreover, our setup allows for individual based as well as ecosystem based solutions. That is, all functions can be performed by individual replicators, or complementing functions can be performed by different replicators. In this setup, where both the ecosystem and the individual genomes can evolve their structure, we study how populations cope with high mutation rates and accordingly how the information threshold might be alleviated.


We observe that the first response to increased mutation rates is a change in coding structure. At moderate mutation rates evolution leads to longer genomes with a higher diversity than at high mutation rates. Thus, counter-intuitively, at higher mutation rates diversity is reduced and the efficacy of the evolutionary process is decreased. Therefore, moderate mutation rates allow for more degrees of freedom in exploring genotype space during the evolutionary trajectory, facilitating the emergence of solutions. When an individual based solution cannot be attained due to high mutation rates, spatial structuring of the ecosystem can accommodate the evolution of ecosystem based solutions.


We conclude that the evolutionary freedom (eg. the number of genotypes that can be reached by evolution) is increasingly restricted by higher mutation rates. In the case of such severe mutation rates that an individual based solution cannot be evolved, the ecosystem can take over and still process the required information forming ecosystem based solutions. We provide a proof of principle for species fulfilling the different roles in an ecosystem when single replicators can no longer cope with all functions simultaneously. This could be a first step in crossing the information threshold.

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