The gene-interaction networks of easy fitness landscapes

Since evolutionary fitness landscapes have been a recurrent theme on TheEGG, I want to return, yet again, to the question of finding local peaks in fitness landscapes. In particular, to the distinction between easy and hard fitness landscapes.

Roughly, in easy landscapes, we can find local peaks quickly and in hard ones, we cannot. But this is very vague. To be a little more precise, I have to borrow the notion of orders of growth from the asymptotic analysis standard in computer science. A family of landscapes indexed by a size n (usually corresponding to the number of genes in the landscape) is easy if a local fitness optimum can be found in the landscapes in time polynomial in n and hard otherwise. In the case of hard landscapes, we can’t guarantee to find a local fitness peak and thus can sometimes reason from a state of perpetual maladaptive disequilibrium.

In Kaznatcheev (2019), I introduced this distinction to biology. Since hard landscapes have more interesting properties which are more challenging to theoretical biologist’s intuitions, I focused more on this. This was read — perhaps rightly — as me advocating for the existence or ubiquity of hard landscapes. And that if hard landscapes don’t occur in nature then my distinction is pointless. But I don’t think this is the most useful reading.

It certainly would be fun if hard landscapes were a feature of nature since they give us a new way to approach certain puzzles like the maintenance of cooperation, the evolution of costly learning, or open-ended evolution. But this is an empirical question. What isn’t a question is that hard landscape are a feature of our mental and mathematical models of evolution. As such, all — or most, whatever that means — fitness landscapes being easy is still exciting for me. It means that the easy vs hard distinction can push us to refine our mental models such that if only easy landscapes occur in nature then our models should only be able to express easy landscapes.

In other words, using computational complexity to build upper-bounds arguments (that on certain classes of landscapes, local optima can be found efficiently) can be just as fun as lower-bounds arguments (that on certain classes of landscapes, evolution requires at least a super-polynomial effort to find any local fitness peak). However, apart from a brief mention of smooth landscapes, I did not stress the upper-bounds in Kaznatcheev (2019).

Now, together with David Cohen and Peter Jeavons, I’ve taken this next step — at least in the cstheory context, we still need to write on the biology. So in this post, I want to talk briefly about a biological framing of Kaznatcheev, Cohen & Jeavons (2019) and the kind of fitness landscapes that are easy for evolution.

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Fighting about frequency and randomly generating fitness landscapes

A couple of months ago, I was in Cambridge for the Evolution Evolving conference. It was a lot of fun, and it was nice to catch up with some familiar faces and meet some new ones. My favourite talk was Karen Kovaka‘s “Fighting about frequency”. It was an extremely well-delivered talk on the philosophy of science. And it engaged with a topic that has been very important to discussions of my own recent work. Although in my case it is on a much smaller scale than the general phenomenon that Kovaka was concerned with,

Let me first set up my own teacup, before discussing the more general storm.

Recently, I’ve had a number of chances to present my work on computational complexity as an ultimate constraint on evolution. And some questions have repeated again and again after several of the presentations. I want to address one of these persistent questions in this post.

How common are hard fitness landscapes?

This question has come up during review, presentations, and emails (most recently from Jianzhi Zhang’s reading group). I’ve spent some time addressing it in the paper. But it is not a question with a clear answer. So unsurprisingly, my comments have not been clear. Hence, I want to use this post to add some clarity.

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Game landscapes: from fitness scalars to fitness functions

My biology writing focuses heavily on fitness landscapes and evolutionary games. On the surface, these might seem fundamentally different from each other, with their only common feature being that they are both about evolution. But there are many ways that we can interconnect these two approaches.

The most popular connection is to view these models as two different extremes in terms of time-scale.

When we are looking at evolution on short time-scales, we are primarily interested which of a limited number of extant variants will take over the population or how they’ll co-exist. We can take the effort to model the interactions of the different types with each other, and we summarize these interactions as games.

But when we zoom out to longer and longer timescales, the importance of these short term dynamics diminish. And we start to worry about how new types arise and take over the population. At this timescale, the details of the type interactions are not as important and we can just focus on the first-order: fitness. What starts to matter is how fitness of nearby mutants compares to each other, so that we can reason about long-term evolutionary trajectories. We summarize this as fitness landscapes.

From this perspective, the fitness landscapes are the more foundational concept. Games are the details that only matter in the short term.

But this isn’t the only perspective we can take. In my recent contribution with Peter Jeavons to Russell Rockne’s 2019 Mathematical Oncology Roadmap, I wanted to sketch a different perspective. In this post I want to sketch this alternative perspective and discuss how ‘game landscapes’ generalize the traditional view of fitness landscapes. In this way, the post can be viewed as my third entry on progressively more general views of fitness landscapes. The previous two were on generalizing the NK-model, and replacing scalar fitness by a probability distribution.

In this post, I will take this exploration of fitness landscapes a little further and finally connect to games. Nothing profound will be said, but maybe it will give another look at a well-known object.

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Local maxima and the fallacy of jumping to fixed-points

An economist and a computer scientist are walking through the University of Chicago campus discussing the efficient markets hypothesis. The computer scientist spots something on the pavement and exclaims: “look at that $20 on the ground — seems we’ll be getting a free lunch today!”

The economist turns to her without looking down and replies: “Don’t be silly, that’s impossible. If there was a $20 bill there then it would have been picked up already.”

This is the fallacy of jumping to fixed-points.

In this post I want to discuss both the importance and power of local maxima, and the dangers of simply assuming that our system is at a local maximum.

So before we dismiss the economist’s remark with laughter, let’s look at a more convincing discussion of local maxima that falls prey to the same fallacy. I’ll pick on one of my favourite YouTubers, THUNK:

In his video, THUNK discusses a wide range of local maxima and contrasts them with the intended global maximum (or more desired local maxima). He first considers a Roomba vacuum cleaner that is trying to maximize the area that it cleans but gets stuck in the local maximum of his chair’s legs. And then he goes on to discuss similar cases in physics, chemisty, evolution, psychology, and culture.

It is a wonderful set of examples and a nice illustration of the power of fixed-points.

But given that I write so much about algorithmic biology, let’s focus on his discussion of evolution. THUNK describes evolution as follows:

Evolution is a sort of hill-climbing algorithm. One that has identified local maxima of survival and replication.

This is a common characterization of evolution. And it seems much less silly than the economist passing up $20. But it is still an example of the fallacy of jumping to fixed-points.

My goal in this post is to convince you that THUNK describing evolution and the economist passing up $20 are actually using the same kind of argument. Sometimes this is a very useful argument, but sometimes it is just a starting point that without further elaboration becomes a fallacy.

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Fitness distributions versus fitness as a summary statistic: algorithmic Darwinism and supply-driven evolution

For simplicity, especially in the fitness landscape literature, fitness is often treated as a scalar — usually a real number. If our fitness landscape is on genotypes then each genotype has an associated scalar value of fitness. If our fitness landscape is on phenotypes then each phenotype has an associated scalar value of fitness.

But this is a little strange. After all, two organisms with the same genotype or phenotype don’t necessarily have the same number of offspring or other life outcomes. As such, we’re usually meant to interpret the value of fitness as the mean of some random variable like number of children. But is the mean the right summary statistic to use? And if it is then which mean: arithmetic or geometric or some other?

One way around this is to simply not use a summary statistic, and instead treat fitness as a random variable with a corresponding distribution. For many developmental biologists, this would still be a simplification since it ignores many other aspects of life-histories — especially related to reproductive timing. But it is certainly an interesting starting point. And one that I don’t see pursued enough in the fitness landscape literature.

The downside is that it makes an already pretty vague and unwieldy model — i.e. the fitness landscape — even less precise and even more unwieldy. As such, we should pursue this generalization only if it brings us something concrete and useful. In this post I want to discuss two aspects of this: better integration of evolution with computational learning theory and thinking about supply driven evolution (i.e. arrival of the fittest). In the process, I’ll be drawing heavily on the thoughts of Leslie Valiant and Julian Z. Xue.

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Quick introduction: Generalizing the NK-model of fitness landscapes

As regular readers of TheEGG know, I’ve been interested in fitness landscapes for many years. At their most basic, a fitness landscape is an almost unworkably vague idea: it is just a mapping from some description of organisms (usually a string corresponding to a genotype or phenotype) to fitness, alongside some notion of locality — i.e. some descriptions being closer to each other than to some other descriptions. Usually, fitness landscapes are studied over combinatorially large genotypic spaces on many loci, with locality coming form something like point mutations at each locus. These spaces are exponentially large in the number of loci. As such, no matter how rapidly next-generation sequencing and fitness assays expand, we will not be able to treat a fitness landscape as simply an array of numbers and measure each fitness. At least for any moderate or larger number of genes.

The space is just too big.

As such, we can’t consider an arbitrary mapping from genotypes to fitness. Instead, we need to consider compact representations.

Ever since Julian Z. Xue first introduced me to it, my favorite compact representation has probably been the NK-model of fitness landscapes. In this post, I will rehearse the definition of what I’d call the classic NK-model. But I’ll then consider how the model would have been defined if it was originally proposed by a mathematician or computer scientists. I’ll call this the generalized NK-model and argue that it isn’t only mathematically more natural but also biologically more sensible.
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Abstracting evolutionary games in cancer

As you can tell from browsing the mathematical oncology posts on TheEGG, somatic evolution is now recognized as a central force in the initiation, progression, treatment, and management of cancer. This has opened a new front in the proverbial war on cancer: focusing on the ecology and evolutionary biology of cancer. On this new front, we are starting to deploy new kinds of mathematical machinery like fitness landscapes and evolutionary games.

Recently, together with Peter Jeavons, I wrote a couple of thousand words on this new machinery for Russell Rockne’s upcoming mathematical oncology roadmap. Our central argument being — to continue the war metaphor — that with new machinery, we need new tactics.

Biologist often aim for reductive explanations, and mathematical modelers have tended to encourage this tactic by searching for mechanistic models. This is important work. But we also need to consider other tactics. Most notable, we need to look at the role that abstraction — both theoretical and empirical abstraction — can play in modeling and thinking about cancer.

The easiest way to share my vision for how we should approach this new tactic would be to throw a preprint up on BioRxiv or to wait for Rockne’s road map to eventually see print. Unfortunately, BioRxiv has a policy against views-like articles — as I was surprised to discover. And I am too impatient to wait for the eventual giant roadmap article.

Hence, I want to share some central parts in this blog post. This is basically an edited and slightly more focused version of our roadmap. Since, so far, game theory models have had more direct impact in oncology than fitness landscapes, I’ve focused this post exclusively on games.
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Cataloging a year of blogging: cancer and fitness landscapes

Happy 2019!

As we leave 2018, the Theory, Evolution, and Games Group Blog enters its 9th calendar year. This past year started out slowly with only 4 posts in the first 5 months. However, after May 31st, I managed to maintain a regular posting schedule. This is the 32nd calendar week in a row with at least one new blog post released.

I am very happy about this regularity. Let’s see if I can maintain it throughout 2019.

A total of 38 posts appeared on TheEGG last year. This is the 3rd most prolific year after the 47 in 2014 and 88 in 2013. One of those being a review of the 12 posts of 2017 (the least prolific year for TheEGG).

But the other 37 posts are too much to cover in one review. Thus, in this catalogue, I’ll focus on cancer and fitness landscapes. Next week, I’ll deal with the more philosophical content from the last year.
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Open-ended evolution on hard fitness landscapes from VCSPs

There is often interest among the public and in the media about evolution and its effects for contemporary humans. In this context, some argue that humans have stopped evolving, including persons who have a good degree of influence over the public opinion. Famous BBC Natural History Unit broadcaster David Attenborough, for example, argued a few years ago in an interview that humans are the only species who “put halt to natural selection of its own free will”. The first time I read this, I thought that it seemed plausible. The advances in medicine that we made in the last two centuries mean that almost all babies can reach adulthood and have children of their own, which appears to cancel natural selection. However, after more careful thought, I realized that these sort of arguments for the ‘end of evolution’ could not be true.

Upon more reflection, there just seem to be better arguments for open-ended evolution.

One way of seeing that we’re still evolving is by observing that we actually created a new environment, with very different struggles than the ones that we encountered in the past. This is what Adam Benton (2013) suggests in his discussion of Attenborough. Living in cities with millions of people is very different from having to survive in a prehistoric jungle, so evolutionary pressures have shifted in this new environment. Success and fitness are measured differently. The continuing pace of changes and evolution in various fields such as technology, medicine, sciences is a clear example that humans continue to evolve. Even from a physical point of view, research shows that we are now becoming taller, after the effects of the last ice age faded out (Yang et al., 2010), while our brain seems to get smaller, for various reasons with the most amusing being that we don’t need that much “central heating”. Take that Aristotle! Furthermore, the shape of our teeth and jaws changed as we changed our diet, with different populations having a different structure based on the local diet (von Cramon-Taubadel, 2011).

But we don’t even need to resort to dynamically changing selection pressures. We can argue that evolution is ongoing even in a static environment. More importantly, we can make this argument in the laboratory. Although we do have to switch from humans to a more prolific species. A good example of this would be Richard Lenski’s long-term E-coli evolution experiment (Lenski et al., 1991) which shows that evolution is still ongoing after 50000 generations in the E-coli bacteria (Wiser et al., 2013). The fitness of the E. coli keeps increasing! This certainly seems like open-ended evolution.

But how do we make theoretical sense of these experimental observations? Artem Kaznatcheev (2018) has one suggestion: ‘hard’ landscapes due to the constraints of computational complexity. He suggests that evolution can be seen as a computational problem, in which the organisms try to maximize their fitness over successive generations. This problem would still be constrained by the theory of computational complexity, which tells us that some problems are too hard to be solved in a reasonable amount of time. Unfortunately, Artem’s work is far too theoretical. This is where my third-year project at the University of Oxford comes in. I will be working together with Artem on actually simulating open-ended evolution on specific examples of hard fitness landscapes that arise from valued constraint satisfaction problems (VCSPs).

Why VCSPs? They are an elegant generalization of the weighted 2SAT problem that Artem used in his work on hard landscapes. I’ll use this blog post to introduce CSPs, VCSPs, explain how they generalize weighted 2 SAT (and thus the NK fitness landscape model), and provide a way to translate between the language of computer science and that of biology.

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Local peaks and clinical resistance at negative cost

Last week, I expanded on Rob Noble’s warning about the different meanings of de novo resistance with a general discussion on the meaning of resistance in a biological vs clinical setting. In that post, I suggested that clinicians are much more comfortable than biologists with resistance without cost, or more radically: with negative cost. But I made no argument — especially no reductive argument that could potentially sway a biologist — about why we should entertain the clinician’s perspective. I want to provide a sketch for such an argument in this post.

In particular, I want to present a theoretical and extremely simple fitness landscape on which a hypothetical tumour might be evolving. The key feature of this landscape is a low local peak blocking the path to a higher local peak — a (partial) ultimate constraint on evolution. I will then consider two imaginary treatments on this landscape, one that I find to be more similar to a global chemotherapy and one that is meant to capture the essence of a targetted therapy. In the process, I will get to introduce the idea of therapy transformations to a landscape — something to address the tendency of people treating treatment fitness landscapes as completely unrelated to untreated fitness landscapes.

Of course, these hypothetical landscapes are chosen as toy models where we can have resistance emerge with a ‘negative’ cost. It is an empirical question to determine if any of this heuristic capture some important feature of real cancer landscapes.

But we won’t know until we start looking.

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