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The role of neutral mutations in the evolution of phenotypes

The role of neutral mutations in the evolution of phenotypes

In a recent opinion piece, Andreas Wagner tries to reconcile the tension between proponents of neutral evolution and selectionism (Wagner 2008). He argues that “neutral mutations prepare the ground for later evolutionary innovation”. Wagner illustrates this point using a network model of genotype-phenotype relationships (Wagner 2005). In a so-called ‘neutral network’, nodes correspond to distinct genotypes associated with the same phenotype and are connected by an edge if the respective genotypes differ only by a single mutation event (eg point mutation). Examples of neutral networks include different genotypes coding for RNA or protein structures. In this representation, highly connected networks correspond to robust phenotypes that are not very sensitive to changes in genotype. Wagner notes the zinc finger fold as an impressive example of a highly connected neutral network as its structure remains essentially the same even after mutating all but seven of its 26 residues to alanine.  Read more