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J Physiol. 2014 Jun 1;592(11):2267-81. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2014.272385.

Bioattractors: dynamical systems theory and the evolution of regulatory processes.

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EMBL/CRG Research Unit in Systems Biology, Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG), Barcelona, Spain Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF), Barcelona, Spain
School of Mathematics and Statistics, and Centre for Membrane Interactions and Dynamics, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK.


In this paper, we illustrate how dynamical systems theory can provide a unifying conceptual framework for evolution of biological regulatory systems. Our argument is that the genotype-phenotype map can be characterized by the phase portrait of the underlying regulatory process. The features of this portrait--such as attractors with associated basins and their bifurcations--define the regulatory and evolutionary potential of a system. We show how the geometric analysis of phase space connects Waddington's epigenetic landscape to recent computational approaches for the study of robustness and evolvability in network evolution. We discuss how the geometry of phase space determines the probability of possible phenotypic transitions. Finally, we demonstrate how the active, self-organizing role of the environment in phenotypic evolution can be understood in terms of dynamical systems concepts. This approach yields mechanistic explanations that go beyond insights based on the simulation of evolving regulatory networks alone. Its predictions can now be tested by studying specific, experimentally tractable regulatory systems using the tools of modern systems biology. A systematic exploration of such systems will enable us to understand better the nature and origin of the phenotypic variability, which provides the substrate for evolution by natural selection.

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