Plasticity-led evolution as an intrinsic property of developmental gene regulatory networks


The modern evolutionary synthesis seemingly fails to explain how a population can survive a large environmental change: the pre-existence of heritable variants adapted to the novel environment is too opportunistic, whereas the search for new adaptive mutations after the environmental change is so slow that the population may go extinct. Plasticity-led evolution, the initial environmental induction of a novel adaptive phenotype followed by genetic accommodation, has been proposed to solve this problem. However, the mechanism enabling plasticity-led evolution remains unclear. Here, we present computational models that exhibit behaviors compatible with plasticity-led evolution by extending the Wagner model of gene regulatory networks. The models show adaptive plastic response and the uncovering of cryptic mutations under large environmental changes, followed by genetic accommodation. Moreover, these behaviors are consistently observed over distinct novel environments. We further show that environmental cues, developmental processes, and hierarchical regulation cooperatively amplify the above behaviors and accelerate evolution. These observations suggest plasticity-led evolution is a universal property of complex developmental systems independent of particular mutations.

Scientific Reports