Evolution 101: Digital Evolution

This Evolution 101 post is by MSU graduate student Armand Burks.

When scientists study the process of evolution in living organisms, two of the key limiting factors are that of time and the amount of data available. In practice, it is necessary to investigate over many years of the genetic history of the organism of interest in order to gain meaningful insight into the many phenomena related to its evolution. In addition to being able to look back far enough, scientists need to have as much genetic data as possible, from many organisms and their ancestors, in order to understand their relationships and how evolution has affected them over time.

Technological advances such as genome sequencing and many others have definitely made it possible to study evolution at a much greater scale than was possible before. However, it is quite often the case that there is simply not enough genetic data collected, or that the available data doesn’t span back far enough to answer all of the questions related to the evolution of the organism of interest. To sum it all up, evolution typically takes a lot of time. In an attempt to alleviate some of these problems, Digital Evolution is an approach that allows researchers and enthusiasts to study various phenomena related to evolution in a simulated computerized environment.

Digital Evolution in Research

Avida is a digital evolution software tool that was pioneered by Charles Ofria, Titus Brown, and Chris Adami. In Avida, digital organisms live in a virtual environment where they replicate, mutate, and compete with each other for survival and resources. With this very simple concept, researchers are able to conduct experiments to study phenomena that occurs in real biological systems. Although it is only a biological simulation, researchers can very quickly test hypotheses and get results that, if possible in nature, would have taken many years. Thus, digital evolution allows researchers to conduct experiments and obtain results in their own lifetimes, which directly adds to the body of knowledge on evolution at a pace that is not possible by observing nature alone.

Screenshot of an Avida run

Screenshot of an Avida run


Digital Evolution in Teaching

Not only does digital evolution allow scientists to study evolution at an unprecedented scale and speed, but it also serves as a great tool for teaching the concepts of biological evolution to students. Avida-ED is another digital evolution software tool that comes in a much simpler form than Avida. Avida-ED is an educational tool that aims to be more approachable by a much wider audience. This software can be used to teach students about the concepts of evolution, providing hands-on classroom experience, and allowing students to conduct their own small experiments as they learn.

A screenshot of the Avida-ED software. Here, we can see a population of digital organisms in the black square, and various tools in the user interface.

A screenshot of the Avida-ED software. Here, we can see a population of digital organisms in the black square, and various tools in the user interface.

As we can see, digital evolution is a very useful tool in both understanding and researching evolution. Digital evolution software allows researchers to study evolution at a much larger scale, and much more rapidly than is possible in nature. By taking advantage of the many technological advances that computers provide, digital evolution allows researchers to study the various phenomena of evolution while overcoming the issue of time. It also provides an intuitive and approachable means for teaching and learning about evolution at various levels. Although this article only describes two digital evolution tools, there are several other tools with varying levels of complexity and generality.

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