Avida is a computer program that performs evolution experiments with digital organisms. Previous work has used the program to study the evolutionary origin of complex features, namely logic operations, but has consistently used extremely large mutational fitness effects. The present study uses Avida to better understand the role of low-impact mutations in evolution.
When mutational fitness effects were approximately 0.075 or less, no new logic operations evolved, and those that had previously evolved were lost. When fitness effects were approximately 0.2, only half of the operations evolved, reflecting a threshold for selection breakdown. In contrast, when Avida's default fitness effects were used, all operations routinely evolved to high frequencies and fitness increased by an average of 20 million in only 10,000 generations.
Avidian organisms evolve new logic operations only when mutations producing them are assigned high-impact fitness effects. Furthermore, purifying selection cannot protect operations with low-impact benefits from mutational deterioration. These results suggest that selection breaks down for low-impact mutations below a certain fitness effect, the selection threshold. Experiments using biologically relevant parameter settings show the tendency for increasing genetic load to lead to loss of biological functionality. An understanding of such genetic deterioration is relevant to human disease, and may be applicable to the control of pathogens by use of lethal mutagenesis.