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Trends Ecol Evol. 2011 Nov;26(11):577-84. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2011.07.001. Epub 2011 Aug 15.

Genotype networks shed light on evolutionary constraints.

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Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich, Y27-J-54, Winterthurerstrasse 190, CH-8057 Zurich, Switzerland.


An evolutionary constraint is a bias or limitation in phenotypic variation that a biological system produces. One can distinguish physicochemical, selective, genetic and developmental causes of such constraints. Here, I discuss these causes in three classes of system that bring forth many phenotypic traits and evolutionary innovations: regulatory circuits, macromolecules and metabolic networks. In these systems, genotypes with the same phenotype form large genotype networks that extend throughout a vast genotype space. Such genotype networks can help unify different causes of evolutionary constraints. They can show that these causes ultimately emerge from the process of development; that is, how phenotypes form from genotypes. Furthermore, they can explain important consequences of constraints, such as punctuated stasis and canalization.

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