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J R Soc Interface. 2012 Apr 7;9(69):613-23. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2011.0390. Epub 2011 Aug 17.

An equilibrium for phenotypic variance in fluctuating environments owing to epigenetics.

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  • 1Department of Biology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA. ocarja@stanford.edu

Abstract

The connection between random environments and genetic and phenotypic variability has been a major focus in the population genetic literature. By providing differential access to the underlying genetic information, epigenetic variation could play an important role in the interaction between environmental and phenotypic variation. Using simulation, we model epigenetic plasticity during development by investigating the dynamics of genetic regulators of the epigenetic machinery that change the variance of the phenotype, while having no effect on the phenotype's mean. Previous studies have found that increased phenotypic variance is selected for if the environment is fluctuating. Here, we find that when a variance-increasing allele achieves a sufficiently high frequency, it can be out-competed by a variance-reducing allele, with the consequence that the population evolves to an equilibrium phenotypic variability. This equilibrium is shown to be robust to different initial conditions, but to depend heavily on parameters of the model, such as the mutation rate, the fitness landscape and the nature of the environmental fluctuation. Indeed, if there is no mutation at the genes controlling the variance of the phenotype, reduction of this variance is favoured.

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