Replication and mutation on neutral networks
Folding of RNA sequences into secondary structures is viewed as a map that assigns a uniquely defined base pairing pattern to every sequence. The mapping is non-invertible since many sequences fold into the same minimum free energy (secondary) structure or shape. The pre-images of this map, called neutral networks, are uniquely associated with the shapes and vice versa. Random graph theory is used to construct networks in sequence space which are suitable models for neutral networks.
The theory of molecular quasispecies has been applied to replication and mutation on single-peak fitness landscapes. This concept is extended by considering evolution on degenerate multi-peak landscapes which originate from neutral networks by assuming that one particular shape is fitter than all the others. On such a single-shape landscape the superior fitness value is assigned to all sequences belonging to the master shape. All other shapes are lumped together and their fitness values are averaged in a way that is reminiscent of mean field theory. Replication and mutation on neutral networks are modeled by phenomenological rate equations as well as by a stochastic birth-and-death model. In analogy to the error threshold in sequence space the phenotypic error threshold separates two scenarios: (i) a stationary (fittest) master shape surrounded by closely related shapes and (ii) populations drifting through shape space by a diffusion-like process. The error classes of the quasispecies model are replaced by distance classes between the master shape and the other structures.
Analytical results are derived for single-shape landscapes, in particular, simple expressions are obtained for the mean fraction of master shapes in a population and for phenotypic error thresholds. The analytical results are complemented by data obtained from computer simulation of the underlying stochastic processes. The predictions of the phenomenological approach on the single-shape landscape are very well reproduced by replication and mutation kinetics of tRNAphe. Simulation of the stochastic process at a resolution of individual distance classes yields data which are in excellent agreement with the results derived from the birth-and-death model.
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