Wagner, A.

Novel phenotypes can originate either through mutations in existing genotypes or through phenotypic plasticity, the ability of one genotype to form multiple phenotypes. From molecules to organisms, plasticity is a ubiquitous feature of life, and a potential source of exaptations, adaptive traits that originated for nonadaptive reasons. Another ubiquitous feature is robustness to mutations, although it is unknown whether such robustness helps or hinders the origin of new phenotypes through plasticity. RNA is ideal to address this question, because it shows extensive plasticity in its secondary structure phenotypes, a consequence of their continual folding and unfolding, and these phenotypes have important biological functions. Moreover, RNA is to some extent robust to mutations. This robustness structures RNA genotype space into myriad connected networks of genotypes with the same phenotype, and it influences the dynamics of evolving populations on a genotype network. In this study I show that both effects help accelerate the exploration of novel phenotypes through plasticity. My observations are based on many RNA molecules sampled at random from RNA sequence space, and on 30 biological RNA molecules. They are thus not only a generic feature of RNA sequence space but are relevant for the molecular evolution of biological RNA.