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Evolution. 2012 Sep;66(9):2891-902. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2012.01649.x. Epub 2012 May 1.

Phenotypic plasticity facilitates mutational variance, genetic variance, and evolvability along the major axis of environmental variation.

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Department of Biology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104, USA.


Phenotypically plastic genotypes express different phenotypes in different environments, often in adaptive ways. The evolution of phenotypic plasticity creates developmental systems that are more flexible along the trait dimensions that are more plastic, and as a result, we hypothesize that such traits will express greater mutational variance, genetic variance, and evolvability. We develop an explicit gene network model with three components: some genes can receive environmental cues about the adult selective environment, some genes that interact repeatedly to determine each others' final state, and other factors that translate these final expression states into the phenotype. We show that the evolution of phenotypic plasticity is an important determinant of mutational patterns, genetic variance, and evolutionary potential of a population. Phenotypic plasticity tends to lead to populations with greater mutational variance, greater standing genetic variance, and, when the optimal phenotypes of two traits vary in concert, greater mutational and genetic correlations. However, plastic populations do not tend to respond much more rapidly to selection than do populations evolved in a static environment. We find that the quantitative genetic descriptions of traits created by explicit developmental network models are evolutionarily labile, with genetic correlations that change rapidly with shifts in the selection regime.

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