Evolution rapidly optimizes stability and aggregation in lattice proteins despite pervasive landscape valleys and mazes

Jason Bertram, Joanna Masel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


The "fitness"landscapes of genetic sequences are characterized by high dimensionality and "ruggedness"due to sign epistasis. Ascending from low to high fitness on such landscapes can be difficult because adaptive trajectories get stuck at low-fitness local peaks. Compounding matters, recent theoretical arguments have proposed that extremely long, winding adaptive paths may be required to reach even local peaks: A "maze-like"landscape topography. The extent to which peaks and mazes shape the mode and tempo of evolution is poorly understood, due to empirical limitations and the abstractness of many landscape models. We explore the prevalence, scale, and evolutionary consequences of landscape mazes in a biophysically grounded computational model of protein evolution that captures the "frustration"between "stability"and aggregation propensity. Our stability-aggregation landscape exhibits extensive sign epistasis and local peaks galore. Although this frequently obstructs adaptive ascent to high fitness and virtually eliminates reproducibility of evolutionary outcomes, many adaptive paths do successfully complete the ascent from low to high fitness, with hydrophobicity a critical mediator of success. These successful paths exhibit maze-like properties on a global landscape scale, in which taking an indirect path helps to avoid low-fitness local peaks. This delicate balance of "hard but possible"adaptation could occur more broadly in other biological settings where competing interactions and frustration are important.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1047-1057
Number of pages11
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2020


  • Computational complexity
  • Fitness landscape
  • Hydrophobic zipping
  • Pleiotropy
  • Protein folding
  • Sign epistasis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics


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