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  1. Humans have long known how to co-opt evolutionary processes for their own benefit. Carefully choosing which individuals to breed so that beneficial traits would take hold, they have domesticated dogs, wheat, cows and many other species to fulfil their needs. Biologists have recently refined these ‘artificial selection’ approaches to focus on microorganisms. The hope is to obtain microbes equipped with desirable features, such as the ability to degrade plastic or to produce valuable molecules. However, existing ways of using artificial selection on microbes are limited and sometimes not effective. Computer scientists have also harnessed evolutionary principles for their own purposes, developing highly effective artificial selection protocols that are used to find solutions to challenging computational problems. Yet because of limited communication between the two fields, sophisticated selection protocols honed over decades in evolutionary computing have yet to be evaluated for use in biological populations. In their work, Lalejini et al. compared popular artificial selection protocols developed for either evolutionary computing or work with microorganisms. Two computing selection methods showed promise for improving directed evolution in the laboratory. Crucially, these selection protocols differed from conventionally used methods by selecting for both diversity and performance, rather than performance alone. These promising approachesmore »are now being tested in the laboratory, with potentially far-reaching benefits for medical, biotech, and agricultural applications. While evolutionary computing owes its origins to our understanding of biological processes, it has much to offer in return to help us harness those same mechanisms. The results by Lalejini et al. help to bridge the gap between computational and biological communities who could both benefit from increased collaboration.« less
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available August 2, 2023
  2. Short Abstract for evolutionary computing community on selection schemes working for directed evolution experiments in microbes.
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available July 9, 2023
  3. Most of Earth’s diversity has been produced in rounds of adaptive radiation, but the ecological drivers of diversification, such as abiotic complexity (i.e., ecological opportunity ) or predation and parasitism (i.e., ecological necessity ), are hard to disentangle. However, most of these radiations occurred hundreds of thousands if not millions of years ago, and the mechanisms promoting contemporary coexistence are not necessarily the same mechanisms that drove diversification in the first place. Experimental evolution has been one fruitful approach used to understand how different ecological mechanisms promote diversification in simple microbial microcosms, but these microbial systems come with their own limitations. To test how ecological necessity and opportunity interact, we use an unusual system of self-replicating computer programs that diversify to fill niches in a virtual environment. These organisms are subject to ecological pressures just like their natural counterparts. They experience biotic interactions from digital parasites, which steal host resources to replicate their own code and spread in the population. With the control afforded by experimenting with computational ecologies, we begin to unweave the complex interplay between ecological drivers of diversification. In particular, we find that the complexity of the abiotic environment and the size of the phenotypic space inmore »which organisms are able to interact play different roles depending on the ecological driver of diversification. We find that in some situations, both ecological opportunity and necessity drive similar levels of diversity. However, the phenotypes that hosts uncover while coevolving with parasites are dramatically more complex than hosts evolving alone.« less
  4. During the struggle for survival, populations occasionally evolve new functions that give them access to untapped ecological opportunities. Theory suggests that coevolution between species can promote the evolution of such innovations by deforming fitness landscapes in ways that open new adaptive pathways. We directly tested this idea by using high-throughput gene editing-phenotyping technology (MAGE-Seq) to measure the fitness landscape of a virus, bacteriophage λ, as it coevolved with its host, the bacterium Escherichia coli . An analysis of the empirical fitness landscape revealed mutation-by-mutation-by-host-genotype interactions that demonstrate coevolution modified the contours of λ’s landscape. Computer simulations of λ’s evolution on a static versus shifting fitness landscape showed that the changes in contours increased λ’s chances of evolving the ability to use a new host receptor. By coupling sequencing and pairwise competition experiments, we demonstrated that the first mutation λ evolved en route to the innovation would only evolve in the presence of the ancestral host, whereas later steps in λ’s evolution required the shift to a resistant host. When time-shift replays of the coevolution experiment were run where host evolution was artificially accelerated, λ did not innovate to use the new receptor. This study provides direct evidence for the rolemore »of coevolution in driving evolutionary novelty and provides a quantitative framework for predicting evolution in coevolving ecological communities.« less
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available July 6, 2023
  5. Symbiosis, the living together of unlike organisms as symbionts, is ubiquitous in the natural world. Symbioses occur within and across all scales of life, from microbial to macro-faunal systems. Further, the interactions between symbionts are multimodal in both strength and type, can span from parasitic to mutualistic within one partnership, and persist over generations. Studying the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of symbiosis in natural or laboratory systems poses a wide range of challenges, including the long time scales at which symbioses evolve de novo , the limited capacity to experimentally control symbiotic interactions, the weak resolution at which we can quantify interactions, and the idiosyncrasies of current model systems. These issues are especially challenging when seeking to understand the ecological effects and evolutionary pressures on and of a symbiosis, such as how a symbiosis may shift between parasitic and mutualistic modes and how that shift impacts the dynamics of the partner population. In digital evolution, populations of computational organisms compete, mutate, and evolve in a virtual environment. Digital evolution features perfect data tracking and allows for experimental manipulations that are impractical or impossible in natural systems. Furthermore, modern computational power allows experimenters to observe thousands of generations of evolution inmore »minutes (as opposed to several months or years), which greatly expands the range of possible studies. As such, digital evolution is poised to become a keystone technique in our methodological repertoire for studying the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of symbioses. Here, we review how digital evolution has been used to study symbiosis, and we propose a series of open questions that digital evolution is well-positioned to answer.« less
  6. Laboratory experiments in which blood-borne parasitic microbes evolve in their animal hosts offer an opportunity to study parasite evolution and adaptation in real time and under natural settings. The main challenge of these experiments is to establish a protocol that is both practical over multiple passages and accurately reflects natural transmission scenarios and mechanisms. We provide a guide to the steps that should be considered when designing such a protocol, and we demonstrate its use via a case study. We highlight the importance of choosing suitable ancestral genotypes, treatments, number of replicates per treatment, types of negative controls, dependent variables, covariates, and the timing of checkpoints for the experimental design. We also recommend specific preliminary experiments to determine effective methods for parasite quantification, transmission, and preservation. Although these methodological considerations are technical, they also often have conceptual implications. To this end, we encourage other researchers to design and conduct in vivo evolution experiments with blood-borne parasitic microbes, despite the challenges that the work entails.
  7. The addition of parasites to a host population can drive an escalation in the host population's phenotypic complexity – even in the absence of a direct fitness advantage for this increase. Parasites restrict certain regions of the genotype space, decreasing the fitness and the probability of survival of particular host phenotypes. While many artificial life frameworks model a direct correlation between genotype and fitness, the structure of genotype-phenotype maps can have important effects on evolutionary dynamics. Using a simple coarse-grained model for phenotypic transitions during evolution, we show that the escalation in phenotypic complexity under neutral co-evolution is dependent on the structure of the genotype-phenotype map. We discuss these results using the metaphor of evolutionary spandrels and highlight how these structural considerations might allow us to capture biological phenomena more accurately.