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Digital organisms used to confirm evolutionary process

EAST LANSING, Mich. - Using a revolutionary computer program that gives scientists the opportunity to watch evolution take place before their eyes using "digital organisms," a team of researchers from Michigan State University and Caltech has confirmed an evolutionary process long suspected but, until now, unproven.

In a paper published in the July 19 edition of the journal Nature, MSU researchers Richard Lenski and Charles Ofria, along with colleagues at Caltech, provided some insight into one aspect of Darwin's theory of natural selection that they dubbed "survival of the flattest."

The paper's title: "Evolution of Digital Organisms at High Mutation Rates Leads to Survival of the Flattest."

This play on Darwin's own "survival of the fittest" incorporates the fact that fitness depends not only on the quantity of offspring an organism can produce in its lifetime, but also how fit those offspring will be.

Lenski and colleagues make the analogy to mountain climbing: the height of the peak you are on is your speed of replication, and the strength of the winds your mutation rate. If there were only a gentle breeze, you would be most fit by climbing to the highest peak you can. But in a more turbulent hurricane, you would want to find someplace where there is not such a long distance to fall - someplace flat.

A fast replicator may be producing many children, but if it's too susceptible to the harmful effects of mutations, it won't contribute to future generations much beyond that. As Lenski put it, "It would have lots of children but not lots of grandchildren."

Specifically, the researchers found that there is tradeoff between producing offspring faster and making them better able to withstand the harmful effects of most mutations. The bottom line: When mutation rates are high, it is better for a species to reproduce more slowly if this allows its offspring to avoid being seriously harmed by mutation
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Contact: Tom Oswald
oswald@msu.edu
517-355-2281
Michigan State University
18-Jul-2001


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