Molecular Biology and Evolution

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June 18, 2015

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In this commentary, I make inferences about the level of repeatability and constraint in the evolutionary process, based on two sets of replicated experiments. The first experiment is crop domestication, which has been replicated across many different species. I focus on results of whole-genome scans for genes selected during domestication and ask whether genes are, in fact, selected in parallel across different domestication events. If genes are selected in parallel, it implies that the number of genetic solutions to the challenge of domestication is constrained. However, I find no evidence for parallel selection events either between species (maize vs. rice) or within species (two domestication events within beans). These results suggest that there are few constraints on genetic adaptation, but conclusions must be tempered by several complicating factors, particularly the lack of explicit design standards for selection screens. The second experiment involves the evolution of Escherichia coli to thermal stress. Unlike domestication, this highly replicated experiment detected a limited set of genes that appear prone to modification during adaptation to thermal stress. However, the number of potentially beneficial mutations within these genes is large, such that adaptation is constrained at the genic level but much less so at the nucleotide level. Based on these two experiments, I make the general conclusion that evolution is remarkably flexible, despite the presence of epistatic interactions that constrain evolutionary trajectories. I also posit that evolution is so rapid that we should establish a Speciation Prize, to be awarded to the first researcher who demonstrates speciation with a sexual organism in the laboratory.

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Despite the general assumption that site-specific mutation rates are independent of the local sequence context, a growing body of evidence suggests otherwise. To further examine context-dependent patterns of mutation, we amassed 5,645 spontaneous mutations in wild- type (WT) and mismatch-repair deficient (MMR–) mutation–accumulation (MA) lines of the gram-positive model organism Bacillus subtilis. We then analyzed>7,500 spontaneous base-substitution mutations across B. subtilis, Escherichia coli, and Mesoplasma florum WT and MMR– MA lines, finding a context-dependent mutation pattern that is asymmetric around the origin of replication. Different neighboring nucleotides can alter site-specific mutation rates by as much as 75-fold, with sites neighboring G:C base pairs or dimers involving alternating pyrimidine–purine and purine–pyrimidine nucleotides having significantly elevated mutation rates. The influence of context-dependent mutation on genome architecture is strongest in M. florum, consistent with the reduced efficiency of selection in organisms with low effective population size. If not properly accounted for, the disparities arising from patterns of context-dependent mutation can significantly influence interpretations of positive and purifying selection.

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Comparative analyses of vertebrate genomes continue to uncover a surprising diversity of genes in the globin gene superfamily, some of which have very restricted phyletic distributions despite their antiquity. Genomic analysis of the globin gene repertoire of cartilaginous fish (Chondrichthyes) should be especially informative about the duplicative origins and ancestral functions of vertebrate globins, as divergence between Chondrichthyes and bony vertebrates represents the most basal split within the jawed vertebrates. Here, we report a comparative genomic analysis of the vertebrate globin gene family that includes the complete globin gene repertoire of the elephant shark (Callorhinchus milii). Using genomic sequence data from representatives of all major vertebrate classes, integrated analyses of conserved synteny and phylogenetic relationships revealed that the last common ancestor of vertebrates possessed a repertoire of at least seven globin genes: single copies of androglobin and neuroglobin, four paralogous copies of globin X, and the single-copy progenitor of the entire set of vertebrate-specific globins. Combined with expression data, the genomic inventory of elephant shark globins yielded four especially surprising findings: 1) there is no trace of the neuroglobin gene (a highly conserved gene that is present in all other jawed vertebrates that have been examined to date), 2) myoglobin is highly expressed in heart, but not in skeletal muscle (reflecting a possible ancestral condition in vertebrates with single-circuit circulatory systems), 3) elephant shark possesses two highly divergent globin X paralogs, one of which is preferentially expressed in gonads, and 4) elephant shark possesses two structurally distinct α-globin paralogs, one of which is preferentially expressed in the brain. Expression profiles of elephant shark globin genes reveal distinct specializations of function relative to orthologs in bony vertebrates and suggest hypotheses about ancestral functions of vertebrate globins.

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Although an increasing number of horizontal gene transfers have been reported in eukaryotes, experimental evidence for their adaptive value is lacking. Here, we report the recent transfer of a 158-kb genomic region between Torulaspora microellipsoides and Saccharomyces cerevisiae wine yeasts or closely related strains. This genomic region has undergone several rearrangements in S. cerevisiae strains, including gene loss and gene conversion between two tandemly duplicated FOT genes encoding oligopeptide transporters. We show that FOT genes confer a strong competitive advantage during grape must fermentation by increasing the number and diversity of oligopeptides that yeast can utilize as a source of nitrogen, thereby improving biomass formation, fermentation efficiency, and cell viability. Thus, the acquisition of FOT genes has favored yeast adaptation to the nitrogen-limited wine fermentation environment. This finding indicates that anthropic environments offer substantial ecological opportunity for evolutionary diversification through gene exchange between distant yeast species.

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Homologous recombination promotes genetic diversity by facilitating the integration of foreign DNA and intrachromosomal gene shuffling. It has been hypothesized that if recombination is variable among strains, selection should favor higher recombination rates among pathogens, as they face additional selection pressures from host defenses. To test this hypothesis we have developed a plasmid-based method for estimating the rate of recombination independently of other factors such as DNA transfer, selective processes, and mutational interference. Our results with 160 human commensal and extraintestinal pathogenic Escherichia coli (ExPEC) isolates show that the recombinant frequencies are extremely diverse (ranging 9 orders of magnitude) and plastic (they are profoundly affected by growth in urine, a condition commonly encountered by ExPEC). We find that the frequency of recombination is biased by strain lifestyle, as ExPEC isolates display strikingly higher recombination rates than their commensal counterparts. Furthermore, the presence of virulence factors is positively associated with higher recombination frequencies. These results suggest selection for high homologous recombination capacity, which may result in a higher evolvability for pathogens compared with commensals.

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It has been proposed that positive selection may be associated with protein functional change. For example, human and macaque have different outcomes to HIV infection and it has been shown that residues under positive selection in the macaque TRIM5α receptor locate to the region known to influence species-specific response to HIV. In general, however, the relationship between sequence and function has proven difficult to fully elucidate, and it is the role of large-scale studies to help bridge this gap in our understanding by revealing major patterns in the data that correlate genotype with function or phenotype. In this study, we investigate the level of species-specific positive selection in innate immune genes from human and mouse. In total, we analyzed 456 innate immune genes using codon-based models of evolution, comparing human, mouse, and 19 other vertebrate species to identify putative species-specific positive selection. Then we used population genomic data from the recently completed Neanderthal genome project, the 1000 human genomes project, and the 17 laboratory mouse genomes project to determine whether the residues that were putatively positively selected are fixed or variable in these populations. We find evidence of species-specific positive selection on both the human and the mouse branches and we show that the classes of genes under positive selection cluster by function and by interaction. Data from this study provide us with targets to test the relationship between positive selection and protein function and ultimately to test the relationship between positive selection and discordant phenotypes.

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Gene families often consist of members with diverse expression domains reflecting their functions in a wide variety of tissues. However, how the expression of individual members, and thus their tissue-specific functions, diversified during the course of gene family expansion is not well understood. In this study, we approached this question through the analysis of the duplication history and transcriptional evolution of a rapidly expanding subfamily of insect Ly6 genes. We analyzed different insect genomes and identified seven Ly6 genes that have originated from a single ancestor through sequential duplication within the higher Diptera. We then determined how the original embryonic expression pattern of the founding gene diversified by characterizing its tissue-specific expression in the beetle Tribolium castaneum, the butterfly Bicyclus anynana, and the mosquito Anopheles stephensi and those of its duplicates in three higher dipteran species, representing various stages of the duplication history (Megaselia abdita, Ceratitis capitata, and Drosophila melanogaster). Our results revealed that frequent neofunctionalization episodes contributed to the increased expression breadth of this subfamily and that these events occurred after duplication and speciation events at comparable frequencies. In addition, at each duplication node, we consistently found asymmetric expression divergence. One paralog inherited most of the tissue-specificities of the founder gene, whereas the other paralog evolved drastically reduced expression domains. Our approach attests to the power of combining a well-established duplication history with a comprehensive coverage of representative species in acquiring unequivocal information about the dynamics of gene expression evolution in gene families.

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When considering the evolution of a gene’s expression profile, we commonly assume that this is unaffected by its genomic neighborhood. This is, however, in contrast to what we know about the lack of autonomy between neighboring genes in gene expression profiles in extant taxa. Indeed, in all eukaryotic genomes genes of similar expression-profile tend to cluster, reflecting chromatin level dynamics. Does it follow that if a gene increases expression in a particular lineage then the genomic neighbors will also increase in their expression or is gene expression evolution autonomous? To address this here we consider evolution of human gene expression since the human-chimp common ancestor, allowing for both variation in estimation of current expression level and error in Bayesian estimation of the ancestral state. We find that in all tissues and both sexes, the change in gene expression of a focal gene on average predicts the change in gene expression of neighbors. The effect is highly pronounced in the immediate vicinity (

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Transcription factors (TFs) play key roles in both development and stress responses. By integrating into and rewiring original systems, novel TFs contribute significantly to the evolution of transcriptional regulatory networks. Here, we report a high-confidence transcriptional regulatory map covering 388 TFs from 47 families in Arabidopsis. Systematic analysis of this map revealed the architectural heterogeneity of developmental and stress response subnetworks and identified three types of novel network motifs that are absent from unicellular organisms and essential for multicellular development. Moreover, TFs of novel families that emerged during plant landing present higher binding specificities and are preferentially wired into developmental processes and these novel network motifs. Further unveiled connection between the binding specificity and wiring preference of TFs explains the wiring preferences of novel-family TFs. These results reveal distinct functional and evolutionary features of novel TFs, suggesting a plausible mechanism for their contribution to the evolution of multicellular organisms.

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Understanding the driving forces behind protein evolution requires the ability to correlate the molecular impact of mutations with organismal fitness. To address this issue, we employ here metallo-β-lactamases as a model system, which are Zn(II) dependent enzymes that mediate antibiotic resistance. We present a study of all the possible evolutionary pathways leading to a metallo-β-lactamase variant optimized by directed evolution. By studying the activity, stability and Zn(II) binding capabilities of all mutants in the preferred evolutionary pathways, we show that this local fitness landscape is strongly conditioned by epistatic interactions arising from the pleiotropic effect of mutations in the different molecular features of the enzyme. Activity and stability assays in purified enzymes do not provide explanatory power. Instead, measurement of these molecular features in an environment resembling the native one provides an accurate description of the observed antibiotic resistance profile. We report that optimization of Zn(II) binding abilities of metallo-β-lactamases during evolution is more critical than stabilization of the protein to enhance fitness. A global analysis of these parameters allows us to connect genotype with fitness based on quantitative biochemical and biophysical parameters.

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Small RNA-mediated chromatin modification is a conserved feature of eukaryotes. In flowering plants, the short interfering (si)RNAs that direct transcriptional silencing are abundant and subfunctionalization has led to specialized machinery responsible for synthesis and action of these small RNAs. In particular, plants possess polymerase (Pol) IV and Pol V, multi-subunit homologs of the canonical DNA-dependent RNA Pol II, as well as specialized members of the RNA-dependent RNA Polymerase (RDR), Dicer-like (DCL), and Argonaute (AGO) families. Together these enzymes are required for production and activity of Pol IV-dependent (p4-)siRNAs, which trigger RNA-directed DNA methylation (RdDM) at homologous sequences. p4-siRNAs accumulate highly in developing endosperm, a specialized tissue found only in flowering plants, and are rare in nonflowering plants, suggesting that the evolution of flowers might coincide with the emergence of specialized RdDM machinery. Through comprehensive identification of RdDM genes from species representing the breadth of the land plant phylogeny, we describe the ancient origin of Pol IV and Pol V, suggesting that a nearly complete and functional RdDM pathway could have existed in the earliest land plants. We also uncover innovations in these enzymes that are coincident with the emergence of seed plants and flowering plants, and recent duplications that might indicate additional subfunctionalization. Phylogenetic analysis reveals rapid evolution of Pol IV and Pol V subunits relative to their Pol II counterparts and suggests that duplicates were retained and subfunctionalized through Escape from Adaptive Conflict. Evolution within the carboxy-terminal domain of the Pol V largest subunit is particularly striking, where illegitimate recombination facilitated extreme sequence divergence.

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A major challenge of modern Biology is elucidating the functional consequences of natural mutations. Although we have a good understanding of the effects of laboratory-induced mutations on the molecular- and organismal-level phenotypes, the study of natural mutations has lagged behind. In this work, we explore the phenotypic space and the evolutionary history of a previously identified adaptive transposable element insertion. We first combined several tests that capture different signatures of selection to show that there is evidence of positive selection in the regions flanking FBti0019386 insertion. We then explored several phenotypes related to known phenotypic effects of nearby genes, and having plausible connections to fitness variation in nature. We found that flies with FBti0019386 insertion had a shorter developmental time and were more sensitive to stress, which are likely to be the adaptive effect and the cost of selection of this mutation, respectively. Interestingly, these phenotypic effects are not consistent with a role of FBti0019386 in temperate adaptation as has been previously suggested. Indeed, a global analysis of the population frequency of FBti0019386 showed that climatic variables explain well the FBti0019386 frequency patterns only in Australia. Finally, although FBti0019386 insertion could be inducing the formation of heterochromatin by recruiting HP1a (Heterochromatin Protein 1a) protein, the insertion is associated with upregulation of sra in adult females. Overall, our integrative approach allowed us to shed light on the evolutionary history, the relevant fitness effects, and the likely molecular mechanisms of an adaptive mutation and highlights the complexity of natural genetic variants.

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Transposable elements comprise more than 45% of the human genome and long interspersed nuclear element 1 (LINE-1 or L1) is the only autonomous mobile element remaining active. Since its identification, it has been proposed that L1 contributes to the mobilization and amplification of other cellular RNAs and more recently, experimental demonstrations of this function has been described for many transcripts such as Alu, a nonautonomous mobile element, cellular mRNAs, or small noncoding RNAs. Detailed examination of the mobilization of various cellular RNAs revealed distinct pathways by which they could be recruited during retrotransposition; template choice or template switching. Here, by analyzing genomic structures and retrotransposition signatures associated with small nuclear RNA (snRNA) sequences, we identified distinct recruiting steps during the L1 retrotransposition cycle for the formation of snRNA-processed pseudogenes. Interestingly, some of the identified recruiting steps take place in the nucleus. Moreover, after comparison to other vertebrate genomes, we established that snRNA amplification by template switching is common to many LINE families from several LINE clades. Finally, we suggest that U6 snRNA copies can serve as markers of L1 retrotransposition dynamics in mammalian genomes.

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We assess phylogenetic patterns of hybridization in the speciose, ecologically and economically important genus Eucalyptus, in order to better understand the evolution of reproductive isolation. Eucalyptus globulus pollen was applied to 99 eucalypt species, mainly from the large commercially important subgenus, Symphyomyrtus. In the 64 species that produce seeds, hybrid compatibility was assessed at two stages, hybrid-production (at approximately 1 month) and hybrid-survival (at 9 months), and compared with phylogenies based on 8,350 genome-wide DArT (diversity arrays technology) markers. Model fitting was used to assess the relationship between compatibility and genetic distance, and whether or not the strength of incompatibility "snowballs" with divergence. There was a decline in compatibility with increasing genetic distance between species. Hybridization was common within two closely related clades (one including E. globulus), but rare between E. globulus and species in two phylogenetically distant clades. Of three alternative models tested (linear, slowdown, and snowball), we found consistent support for a snowball model, indicating that the strength of incompatibility accelerates relative to genetic distance. Although we can only speculate about the genetic basis of this pattern, it is consistent with a Dobzhansky–Muller-model prediction that incompatibilities should snowball with divergence due to negative epistasis. Different rates of compatibility decline in the hybrid-production and hybrid-survival measures suggest that early-acting postmating barriers developed first and are stronger than later-acting barriers. We estimated that complete reproductive isolation can take up to 21–31 My in Eucalyptus. Practical implications for hybrid eucalypt breeding and genetic risk assessment in Australia are discussed.

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The nearly neutral theory predicts that small effective population size provides the conditions for weakened selection. This is postulated to explain why our genome is more "bloated" than that of, for example, yeast, ours having large introns and large intergene spacer. If a bloated genome is also an error prone genome might it, however, be the case that selection for error-mitigating properties is stronger in our genome? We examine this notion using splicing as an exemplar, not least because large introns can predispose to noisy splicing. We thus ask whether, owing to genomic decay, selection for splice error-control mechanisms is stronger, not weaker, in species with large introns and small populations. In humans much information defining splice sites is in cis-exonic motifs, most notably exonic splice enhancers (ESEs). These act as splice-error control elements. Here then we ask whether within and between-species intron size is a predictor of the commonality of exonic cis-splicing motifs. We show that, as predicted, the proportion of synonymous sites that are ESE-associated and under selection in humans is weakly positively correlated with the size of the flanking intron. In a phylogenetically controlled framework, we observe, also as expected, that mean intron size is both predicted by Ne and is a good predictor of cis-motif usage across species, this usage coevolving with splice site definition. Unexpectedly, however, across taxa intron density is a better predictor of cis-motif usage than intron size. We propose that selection for splice-related motifs is driven by a need to avoid decoy splice sites that will be more common in genes with many and large introns. That intron number and density predict ESE usage within human genes is consistent with this, as is the finding of intragenic heterogeneity in ESE density. As intronic content and splice site usage across species is also well predicted by Ne, the result also suggests an unusual circumstance in which selection (for cis-modifiers of splicing) might be stronger when population sizes are smaller, as here splicing is noisier, resulting in a greater need to control error-prone splicing.

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In most eukaryotes, centromere is determined by the presence of the centromere-specific histone variant CenH3. Two types of chromosome morphology are generally recognized with respect to centromere organization. Monocentric chromosomes possess a single CenH3-containing domain in primary constriction, whereas holocentric chromosomes lack the primary constriction and display dispersed distribution of CenH3. Recently, metapolycentric chromosomes have been reported in Pisum sativum, representing an intermediate type of centromere organization characterized by multiple CenH3-containing domains distributed across large parts of chromosomes that still form a single constriction. In this work, we show that this type of centromere is also found in other Pisum and closely related Lathyrus species, whereas Vicia and Lens genera, which belong to the same legume tribe Fabeae, possess only monocentric chromosomes. We observed extensive variability in the size of primary constriction and the arrangement of CenH3 domains both between and within individual Pisum and Lathyrus species, with no obvious correlation to genome or chromosome size. Search for CenH3 gene sequences revealed two paralogous variants, CenH3-1 and CenH3-2, which originated from a duplication event in the common ancestor of Fabeae species. The CenH3-1 gene was subsequently lost or silenced in the lineage leading to Vicia and Lens, whereas both genes are retained in Pisum and Lathyrus. Both of these genes appear to have evolved under purifying selection and produce functional CenH3 proteins which are fully colocalized. The findings described here provide the first evidence for a highly dynamic centromere structure within a group of closely related species, challenging previous concepts of centromere evolution.