Neural networks enable efficient and accurate simulation-based inference of evolutionary parameters from adaptation dynamics

Grace Avecilla, Julie N. Chuong, Fangfei Li, Gavin Sherlock, David Gresham*, Yoav Ram*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


The rate of adaptive evolution depends on the rate at which beneficial mutations are introduced into a population and the fitness effects of those mutations. The rate of beneficial mutations and their expected fitness effects is often difficult to empirically quantify. As these 2 parameters determine the pace of evolutionary change in a population, the dynamics of adaptive evolution may enable inference of their values. Copy number variants (CNVs) are a pervasive source of heritable variation that can facilitate rapid adaptive evolution. Previously, we developed a locus-specific fluorescent CNV reporter to quantify CNV dynamics in evolving populations maintained in nutrient-limiting conditions using chemostats. Here, we use CNV adaptation dynamics to estimate the rate at which beneficial CNVs are introduced through de novo mutation and their fitness effects using simulation-based likelihood–free inference approaches. We tested the suitability of 2 evolutionary models: a standard Wright–Fisher model and a chemostat model. We evaluated 2 likelihood-free inference algorithms: the well-established Approximate Bayesian Computation with Sequential Monte Carlo (ABC-SMC) algorithm, and the recently developed Neural Posterior Estimation (NPE) algorithm, which applies an artificial neural network to directly estimate the posterior distribution. By systematically evaluating the suitability of different inference methods and models, we show that NPE has several advantages over ABC-SMC and that a Wright–Fisher evolutionary model suffices in most cases. Using our validated inference framework, we estimate the CNV formation rate at the GAP1 locus in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae to be 10−4.7 to 10−4 CNVs per cell division and a fitness coefficient of 0.04 to 0.1 per generation for GAP1 CNVs in glutamine-limited chemostats. We experimentally validated our inference-based estimates using 2 distinct experimental methods—barcode lineage tracking and pairwise fitness assays—which provide independent confirmation of the accuracy of our approach. Our results are consistent with a beneficial CNV supply rate that is 10-fold greater than the estimated rates of beneficial single-nucleotide mutations, explaining the outsized importance of CNVs in rapid adaptive evolution. More generally, our study demonstrates the utility of novel neural network–based likelihood–free inference methods for inferring the rates and effects of evolutionary processes from empirical data with possible applications ranging from tumor to viral evolution.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere3001633
JournalPLoS Biology
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2022


FundersFunder number
Minerva Stiftung Center for Lab Evolution
National Science FoundationT32 GM132037, MCB1818234, R35 GM131824, DGE1342536, DGE1839302, R01 AI136992
National Institutes of HealthR01 GM107466
National Institute of General Medical SciencesR01GM134066
Israel Science Foundation552/19


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