Stochastic tunneling across fitness valleys can give rise to a logarithmic long-term fitness trajectory


Adaptation, where a population evolves increasing fitness in a fixed environment, is typically thought of as a hill-climbing process on a fitness landscape. With a finite genome, such a process eventually leads the population to a fitness peak, at which point fitness can no longer increase through individual beneficial mutations. Instead, the ruggedness of typical landscapes due to epistasis between genes or DNA sites suggests that the accumulation of multiple mutations (via a process known as stochastic tunneling) can allow a population to continue increasing in fitness. However, it is not clear how such a phenomenon would affect long-term fitness evolution. By using a spin-glass type model for the fitness function that takes into account microscopic epistasis, we find that hopping between metastable states can mechanistically and robustly give rise to a slow, logarithmic average fitness trajectory.

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