A chance mutation or mistake in replication introduces genetic variation, the substrate for evolution. Different genetic variants within a population may be slightly better suited to a task, or may create a ripple effect in gene expression, altering many characteristics of the individual.

“Genes underlying all traits exist in complex webs termed molecular networks,” says SFI Omidyar Fellow Sam Scarpino. 

Moreover, he says, the role of individual genes in the process of adaptation is affected by their positions in these networks.

Scarpino, an integrative biologist investigating the evolution and spread of infectious diseases, co-organized his first SFI working group in late February to explore the role of adaptation in molecular evolution.

The meeting’s co-organizer and mathematical ecologist Jesse Lasky of Columbia University, with his background in fundamental ecological and evolutionary processes at the levels of communities and genomes, brought deep theoretical and statistical expertise to the discussions.

Co-organizer and integrative biologist David Des Marais of Harvard University brought an experimental perspective. His research examines how plants adapt to local climates, focusing on the genetic and physiological bases of their stress responses.

Other participants included SFI Omidyar Fellows Evandro Ferrada, who investigates how evolutionary mechanisms operate at various levels of organization, and Eric Libby, who researches how single-celled ancestors transitioned to simple multicellular organisms and what those in-between forms might have looked like.

The group took the rst steps in answering testable questions, such as where selection acts within molecular networks, and how the stability of an environment affects molecular evolution as a population adapts to a new location or conditions.

“Our results, we hope, will serve as a foundation for developing new theory and interrogating it with experiments and data,” says Scarpino.