Toward a prospective molecular evolution

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Science  13 May 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6287, pp. 769-770
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf7543

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The field of molecular evolution is concerned with evolutionary changes in genes and genomes and the underlying driving forces behind those changes. Current studies in molecular evolution are almost entirely retrospective, with a focus on the mutations that were fixed during evolution, and the conclusions are often explanatory, offering no predictive insights. Because only a tiny fraction of all mutations that have ever occurred during evolution have been fixed, the “successes” that we see today provide an incomplete or even biased understanding of the evolutionary process. One way to circumvent this problem is to obtain the whole fitness landscape of a gene to understand, prospectively, chance and necessity in evolution (see the figure). Two studies in this issue, by Li et al. on page 837 (1) and Puchta et al. on page 840 (2), each take on this challenge by characterizing the in vivo fitness landscape of two RNA genes.