Evolution of adaptive phenotypic variation patterns by direct selection for evolvability

Mihaela Pavlicev, James M. Cheverud, Günter P. Wagner


A basic assumption of the Darwinian theory of evolution is that heritable variation arises randomly. In this context, randomness means that mutations arise irrespective of the current adaptive needs imposed by the environment. It is broadly accepted, however, that phenotypic variation is not uniformly distributed among phenotypic traits, some traits tend to covary, while others vary independently, and again others barely vary at all. Furthermore, it is well established that patterns of trait variation differ among species. Specifically, traits that serve different functions tend to be less correlated, as for instance forelimbs and hind limbs in bats and humans, compared with the limbs of quadrupedal mammals. Recently, a novel class of genetic elements has been identified in mouse gene-mapping studies that modify correlations among quantitative traits. These loci are called relationship loci, or relationship Quantitative Trait Loci (rQTL), and affect trait correlations by changing the expression of the existing genetic variation through gene interaction. Here, we present a population genetic model of how natural selection acts on rQTL. Contrary to the usual neo-Darwinian theory, in this model, new heritable phenotypic variation is produced along the selected dimension in response to directional selection. The results predict that selection on rQTL leads to higher correlations among traits that are simultaneously under directional selection. On the other hand, traits that are not simultaneously under directional selection are predicted to evolve lower correlations. These results and the previously demonstrated existence of rQTL variation, show a mechanism by which natural selection can directly enhance the evolvability of complex organisms along lines of adaptive change.

  • Received October 1, 2010.
  • Accepted November 5, 2010.
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