Continuity in Evolution: On the Nature of Transitions

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Science  29 May 1998:
Vol. 280, Issue 5368, pp. 1451-1455
DOI: 10.1126/science.280.5368.1451

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To distinguish continuous from discontinuous evolutionary change, a relation of nearness between phenotypes is needed. Such a relation is based on the probability of one phenotype being accessible from another through changes in the genotype. This nearness relation is exemplified by calculating the shape neighborhood of a transfer RNA secondary structure and provides a characterization of discontinuous shape transformations in RNA. The simulation of replicating and mutating RNA populations under selection shows that sudden adaptive progress coincides mostly, but not always, with discontinuous shape transformations. The nature of these transformations illuminates the key role of neutral genetic drift in their realization.

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