Criticality Is an Emergent Property of Genetic Networks that Exhibit Evolvability
Accumulating experimental evidence suggests that the gene regulatory networks of living organisms operate in the critical phase, namely, at the transition between ordered and chaotic dynamics. Such critical dynamics of the network permits the coexistence of robustness and flexibility which are necessary to ensure homeostatic stability (of a given phenotype) while allowing for switching between multiple phenotypes (network states) as occurs in development and in response to environmental change. However, the mechanisms through which genetic networks evolve such critical behavior have remained elusive. Here we present an evolutionary model in which criticality naturally emerges from the need to balance between the two essential components of evolvability: phenotype conservation and phenotype innovation under mutations. We simulated the Darwinian evolution of random Boolean networks that mutate gene regulatory interactions and grow by gene duplication. The mutating networks were subjected to selection for networks that both (i) preserve all the already acquired phenotypes (dynamical attractor states) and (ii) generate new ones. Our results show that this interplay between extending the phenotypic landscape (innovation) while conserving the existing phenotypes (conservation) suffices to cause the evolution of all the networks in a population towards criticality. Furthermore, the networks produced by this evolutionary process exhibit structures with hubs (global regulators) similar to the observed topology of real gene regulatory networks. Thus, dynamical criticality and certain elementary topological properties of gene regulatory networks can emerge as a byproduct of the evolvability of the phenotypic landscape. Dynamically critical systems are those which operate at the border of a phase transition between two behavioral regimes often present in complex systems: order and disorder. Critical systems exhibit remarkable properties such as fast information processing, collective response to perturbations or the ability to integrate a wide range of external stimuli without saturation. Recent evidence indicates that the genetic networks of living cells are dynamically critical. This has far reaching consequences, for it is at criticality that living organisms can tolerate a wide range of external fluctuations without changing the functionality of their phenotypes. Therefore, it is necessary to know how genetic criticality emerged through evolution. Here we show that dynamical criticality naturally emerges from the delicate balance between two fundamental forces of natural selection that make organisms evolve: (i) the existing phenotypes must be resilient to random mutations, and (ii) new phenotypes must emerge for the organisms to adapt to new environmental challenges. The joint effect of these two forces, which are essential for evolvability, is sufficient in our computational models to generate populations of genetic networks operating at criticality. Thus, natural selection acting as a tinkerer of evolvable systems naturally generates critical dynamics.