Slowly switching between environments facilitates reverse evolution in small populations.
Natural populations must constantly adapt to ever-changing environmental conditions. A particularly interesting question is whether such adaptations can be reversed by returning the population to an ancestral environment. Such evolutionary reversals have been observed in both natural and laboratory populations. However, the factors that determine the reversibility of evolution are still under debate. The time scales of environmental change vary over a wide range, but little is known about how the rate of environmental change influences the reversibility of evolution. Here, we demonstrate computationally that slowly switching between environments increases the reversibility of evolution for small populations that are subject to only modest clonal interference. For small populations, slow switching reduces the mean number of mutations acquired in a new environment and also increases the probability of reverse evolution at each of these "genetic distances." As the population size increases, slow switching no longer reduces the genetic distance, thus decreasing the evolutionary reversibility. We confirm this effect using both a phenomenological model of clonal interference and also a Wright-Fisher stochastic simulation that incorporates genetic diversity. Our results suggest that the rate of environmental change is a key determinant of the reversibility of evolution, and provides testable hypotheses for experimental evolution. © 2012 The Author(s). Evolution© 2012 The Society for the Study of Evolution.