Background. The secondary structure of folded RNA sequences is a good model to map phenotype onto genotype, as represented by the RNA sequence. Computational studies of the evolution of ensembles of RNA molecules towards target secondary structures yield valuable clues to the mechanisms behind adaptation of complex populations. The relationship between the space of sequences and structures, the organization of RNA ensembles at mutation-selection equilibrium, the time of adaptation as a function of the population parameters, the presence of collective effects in quasispecies, or the optimal mutation rates to promote adaptation all are issues that can be explored within this framework. Results. We investigate the effect of microscopic mutations on the phenotype of RNA molecules during their in silico evolution and adaptation. We calculate the distribution of the effects of mutations on fitness, the relative fractions of beneficial and deleterious mutations and the corresponding selection coefficients for populations evolving under different mutation rates. Three different situations are explored: the mutation-selection equilibrium (optimized population) in three different fitness landscapes, the dynamics during adaptation towards a goal structure (adapting population), and the behavior under periodic population bottlenecks (perturbed population). Conclusions. The ratio between the number of beneficial and deleterious mutations experienced by a population of RNA sequences increases with the value of the mutation rate µ at which evolution proceeds. In contrast, the selective value of mutations remains almost constant, independent of µ, indicating that adaptation occurs through an increase in the amount of beneficial mutations, with little variations in the average effect they have on fitness. Statistical analyses of the distribution of fitness effects reveal that small effects, either beneficial or deleterious, are well described by a Pareto distribution. These results are robust under changes in the fitness landscape, remarkably when, in addition to selecting a target secondary structure, specific subsequences or low-energy folds are required. A population perturbed by bottlenecks behaves similarly to an adapting population, struggling to return to the optimized state. Whether it can survive in the long run or whether it goes extinct depends critically on the length of the time interval between bottlenecks.
Bibliographical note© 2010 Stich et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.
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