The Context-Dependence of Mutations: A Linkage of Formalisms

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Defining the extent of epistasis - the non-independence of the effects of mutations - is essential for understanding the relationship of genotype, phenotype, and fitness in biological systems. The applications cover many areas of biological research, including biochemistry, genomics, protein and systems engineering, medicine, and evolutionary biology. However, the quantitative definitions of epistasis vary among fields, and its analysis beyond just pairwise effects remains obscure in general. Here, we show that different definitions of epistasis are versions of a single mathematical formalism - the weighted Walsh-Hadamard transform. We discuss that one of the definitions, the backgound-averaged epistasis, is the most informative when the goal is to uncover the general epistatic structure of a biological system, a description that can be rather different from the local epistatic structure of specific model systems. Key issues are the choice of effective ensembles for averaging and to practically contend with the vast combinatorial complexity of mutations. In this regard, we discuss possible approaches for optimally learning the epistatic structure of biological systems.




Poelwijk, F. J., Krishna, V., & Ranganathan, R. (2016). The Context-Dependence of Mutations: A Linkage of Formalisms. PLoS Computational Biology, 12(6).

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