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Mol Biol Evol. 2013 Apr;30(4):761-71. doi: 10.1093/molbev/mst003. Epub 2013 Jan 11.

Protein insertions and deletions enabled by neutral roaming in sequence space.

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  • 1Department of Biological Chemistry, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel.


Backbone modifications via insertions and deletions (InDels) may exert dramatic effects, for better (mediating new functions) and for worse (causing loss of structure and/or function). However, contrary to point mutations (substitutions), our knowledge of the evolution and structural-functional effects of InDels is limited and so is our capability to engineer them. We sought to assess how deleterious InDels are relative to point mutations and understand the mechanisms that mediate their acceptance. Analysis of the evolution of InDels in orthologous protein phylogenies indicated that their rate of purging is 9- to 100-fold higher than for point mutations. In yeast, for example, the substitutions-to-InDels ratio is approximately 14-fold higher in protein coding than in noncoding regions. The incorporation of InDels relative to substitutions is not only slow but also nonlinear. On average, ≥50 substitutions accumulate before the appearance of the first InDel. We also found enriched substitutions in sequential and spatial proximity to InDels, suggesting that certain substitutions are correlated with InDels. As indicated by the lag in InDels accumulation, some of these correlated substitutions may have occurred first, as apparently neutral mutations, and later enabled the accumulation of InDels that would be otherwise purged. Thus, compensatory substitutions may follow InDels in an "adaptive walk" as traditionally assumed, but might also accumulate first, by "neutral roaming." The dynamics of InDels accumulation also depends on their genomic frequencies-InDels in flies are 4-fold more frequent than in yeast and tend to be compensated rather than enabled.

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