Spontaneous evolution of modularity and network motifs
Biological networks have an inherent simplicity: they are modular with a design that can be separated into units that perform almost independently. Furthermore, they show reuse of recurring patterns termed network motifs. Little is known about the evolutionary origin of these properties. Current models of biological evolution typically produce networks that are highly nonmodular and lack understandable motifs. Here, we suggest a possible explanation for the origin of modularity and network motifs in biology. We use standard evolutionary algorithms to evolve networks. A key feature in this study is evolution under an environment (evolutionary goal) that changes in a modular fashion. That is, we repeatedly switch between several goals, each made of a different combination of subgoals. We find that such “modularly varying goals” lead to the spontaneous evolution of modular network structure and network motifs. The resulting networks rapidly evolve to satisfy each of the different goals. Such switching between related goals may represent biological evolution in a changing environment that requires different combinations of a set of basic biological functions. The present study may shed light on the evolutionary forces that promote structural simplicity in biological networks and offers ways to improve the evolutionary design of engineered systems.