Physics & QBio Hagoromo Hour: Ryan McGee, Washington University in St. Louis, “Natural selection as the process of accumulating adaptive information”

Event time: 
Wednesday, February 22, 2023 - 11:00am to 12:00pm
Bass Center for Molecular and Structural Biology (BASS) See map
266 Whitney Avenue
New Haven, CT 06511
Event description: 

Living things adapt to complex conditions by leveraging information about their environments. Much of the information for generating and maintaining an organism that is well-suited to its environment is encoded in the genome. While population genetics has developed a large body of theory regarding how genetic variance changes in the process of evolution, we lack correspondingly rich theory describing how adaptive information changes as a consequence of these same dynamics. In this talk, I will develop a formal definition of adaptive information that refers to contents of the genome that represent selective features of particular environments and illustrate how different evolutionary forces shape this information. I will argue that this view of genetic information is not only of theoretical interest, but also practical and useful as a measure of adaptive differentiation. From there, I will consider results from classical population genetics that suggest there is a cost of selection, measured in terms of substitutional load, that limits how much information can be acquired by this process. By reframing the process of natural selection in learning theoretic terms, I am able to clarify and formalize the cost of selection in terms of regret: a relative measure of load. I can then establish general bounds on this cost and show that there is indeed a fundamental fitness cost associated with information acquisition by selection. These results highlight the centrality of information acquisition to natural selection and the value that information-theoretic perspectives have in evolutionary biology.
Hosts: Michael Abbott (, Isabella Graf (, and Mason Rouches (