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Nature. 2011 Jun 2;474(7349):92-5. doi: 10.1038/nature10083.

Cryptic genetic variation promotes rapid evolutionary adaptation in an RNA enzyme.

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Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich, 8057 Zurich, Switzerland.


Cryptic variation is caused by the robustness of phenotypes to mutations. Cryptic variation has no effect on phenotypes in a given genetic or environmental background, but it can have effects after mutations or environmental change. Because evolutionary adaptation by natural selection requires phenotypic variation, phenotypically revealed cryptic genetic variation may facilitate evolutionary adaptation. This is possible if the cryptic variation happens to be pre-adapted, or "exapted", to a new environment, and is thus advantageous once revealed. However, this facilitating role for cryptic variation has not been proven, partly because most pertinent work focuses on complex phenotypes of whole organisms whose genetic basis is incompletely understood. Here we show that populations of RNA enzymes with accumulated cryptic variation adapt more rapidly to a new substrate than a population without cryptic variation. A detailed analysis of our evolving RNA populations in genotype space shows that cryptic variation allows a population to explore new genotypes that become adaptive only in a new environment. Our observations show that cryptic variation contains new genotypes pre-adapted to a changed environment. Our results highlight the positive role that robustness and epistasis can have in adaptive evolution.

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