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On the sparsity of fitness functions and implications for learning


Fitness functions map biological sequences to a scalar property of interest. Accurate estimation of these functions yields biological insight and sets the foundation for model-based sequence design. However, the fitness datasets available to learn these functions are typically small relative to the large combinatorial space of sequences; characterizing how much data are needed for accurate estimation remains an open problem. There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that empirical fitness functions display substantial sparsity when represented in terms of epistatic interactions. Moreover, the theory of Compressed Sensing provides scaling laws for the number of samples required to exactly recover a sparse function. Motivated by these results, we develop a framework to study the sparsity of fitness functions sampled from a generalization of the NK model, a widely used random field model of fitness functions. In particular, we present results that allow us to test the effect of the Generalized NK (GNK) model's interpretable parameters-sequence length, alphabet size, and assumed interactions between sequence positions-on the sparsity of fitness functions sampled from the model and, consequently, the number of measurements required to exactly recover these functions. We validate our framework by demonstrating that GNK models with parameters set according to structural considerations can be used to accurately approximate the number of samples required to recover two empirical protein fitness functions and an RNA fitness function. In addition, we show that these GNK models identify important higher-order epistatic interactions in the empirical fitness functions using only structural information.

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