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PLoS Comput Biol. 2014 Aug 14;10(8):e1003778. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003778. eCollection 2014 Aug.

Quantifying the role of population subdivision in evolution on rugged fitness landscapes.

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Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics and Department of Physics, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, United States of America.


Natural selection drives populations towards higher fitness, but crossing fitness valleys or plateaus may facilitate progress up a rugged fitness landscape involving epistasis. We investigate quantitatively the effect of subdividing an asexual population on the time it takes to cross a fitness valley or plateau. We focus on a generic and minimal model that includes only population subdivision into equivalent demes connected by global migration, and does not require significant size changes of the demes, environmental heterogeneity or specific geographic structure. We determine the optimal speedup of valley or plateau crossing that can be gained by subdivision, if the process is driven by the deme that crosses fastest. We show that isolated demes have to be in the sequential fixation regime for subdivision to significantly accelerate crossing. Using Markov chain theory, we obtain analytical expressions for the conditions under which optimal speedup is achieved: valley or plateau crossing by the subdivided population is then as fast as that of its fastest deme. We verify our analytical predictions through stochastic simulations. We demonstrate that subdivision can substantially accelerate the crossing of fitness valleys and plateaus in a wide range of parameters extending beyond the optimal window. We study the effect of varying the degree of subdivision of a population, and investigate the trade-off between the magnitude of the optimal speedup and the width of the parameter range over which it occurs. Our results, obtained for fitness valleys and plateaus, also hold for weakly beneficial intermediate mutations. Finally, we extend our work to the case of a population connected by migration to one or several smaller islands. Our results demonstrate that subdivision with migration alone can significantly accelerate the crossing of fitness valleys and plateaus, and shed light onto the quantitative conditions necessary for this to occur.

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