I think everyone studying biology must, at some point, sit back in awe at the tremendous adaptability of life; the way whole organs are transformed or invented, and complex behaviors constructed, suggests many small tweaks to a very flexible developmental system over hundreds of thousands of years. Rapid evolution in a bacterium adapting to antibiotics, or a virus expanding into a new host, is harder to see but no less impressive. Yet failures to adapt, whether extinctions or simply passed opportunities for a species to exploit a new niche, are ubiquitous as well.
What factors determine whether a population will adapt to a new or changed environment? When a population does adapt, what genes and traits will be the ones to change? I take a few different approaches to answering these questions.
Primarily, I use computer models to probe the basic connections between evolutionary processes and empirical patterns. For example, I’ve built and analyzed models to understand how natural selection can lead to greater evolvability, defined as the average speed of adaptation in new environments. In these studies, I simulated a genotype-phenotype relationship–some process that turns genetic information into traits and behaviors–as well as selection and reproduction in a population. The basic idea is to devise a genotype-phenotype model that captures some feature of real organisms that I think might be especially relevant for my question; then, I can approach this model like an experimentalist, devising experiments with treatments and controls to reveal how different kinds of evolution lead to differences in properties like evolvability.