Evolutionary Trade-Offs, Pareto Optimality, and the Geometry of Phenotype Space

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Science  26 Apr 2012:
DOI: 10.1126/science.1217405

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Biological systems that need to perform multiple tasks face a fundamental trade-off: A given phenotype cannot be optimal at all tasks. Here, we ask how trade-offs affect the range of phenotypes found in nature. Using the Pareto front concept from economics and engineering, we find that best-trade-off phenotypes are weighted averages of archetypes—phenotypes specialized for single tasks. For two tasks, phenotypes fall on the line connecting the two archetypes, which could explain linear trait correlations and allometric relationships, as well as bacterial gene-expression patterns. For three tasks, phenotypes fall within a triangle in phenotype space, whose vertices are the archetypes, as evident in morphological studies including Darwin's finches. Tasks can be inferred from measured phenotypes based on the behavior of organisms nearest the archetypes.

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