Fitness interactions between loci in the genome, or epistasis, can result in mutations that are individually deleterious but jointly beneficial. Such epistasis gives rise to multiple peaks on the genotypic fitness landscape. The problem of evolutionary escape from such local peaks has been a central problem of evolutionary genetics for at least 75 years. Much attention has focused on models of small populations, in which the sequential fixation of valley genotypes carrying individually deleterious mutations operates most quickly owing to genetic drift. However, valley genotypes can also be subject to mutation while transiently segregating, giving rise to copies of the high fitness escape genotype carrying the jointly beneficial mutations. In the absence of genetic recombination, these mutations may then fix simultaneously. The time for this process declines sharply with increasing population size, and it eventually comes to dominate evolutionary behavior. Here we develop an analytic expression for Ncrit, the critical population size that defines the boundary between these regimes, which shows that both are likely to operate in nature. Frequent recombination may disrupt high-fitness escape genotypes produced in populations larger than Ncrit before they reach fixation, defining a third regime whose rate again slows with increasing population size. We develop a novel expression for this critical recombination rate, which shows that in large populations the simultaneous fixation of mutations that are beneficial only jointly is unlikely to be disrupted by genetic recombination if their map distance is on the order of the size of single genes. Thus, counterintuitively, mass selection alone offers a biologically realistic resolution to the problem of evolutionary escape from local fitness peaks in natural populations.
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Vol. 59 • No. 6