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Development. 2003 Nov;130(21):5133-42. Epub 2003 Aug 27.

Functional tests of enhancer conservation between distantly related species.

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Department of Molecular Biology, Massachusetts General Hospital and Department of Genetics, Harvard Medical School, Wellman 8, Boston, MA 02114, USA.


Expression patterns of orthologous genes are often conserved, even between distantly related organisms, suggesting that once established, developmental programs can be stably maintained over long periods of evolutionary time. Because many orthologous transcription factors are also functionally conserved, one possible model to account for homologous gene expression patterns, is conservation of specific binding sites within cis-regulatory elements of orthologous genes. If this model is correct, a cis-regulatory element from one organism would be expected to function in a distantly related organism. To test this hypothesis, we fused the green fluorescent protein gene to neuronal and muscular enhancer elements from a variety of Drosophila melanogaster genes, and tested whether these would activate expression in the homologous cell types in Caenorhabditis elegans. Regulatory elements from several genes directed appropriate expression in homologous tissue types, suggesting conservation of regulatory sites. However, enhancers of most Drosophila genes tested were not properly recognized in C. elegans, implying that over this evolutionary distance enough changes occurred in cis-regulatory sequences and/or transcription factors to prevent proper recognition of heterospecific enhancers. Comparisons of enhancer elements of orthologous genes between C. elegans and C. briggsae revealed extensive conservation, as well as specific instances of functional divergence. Our results indicate that functional changes in cis-regulatory sequences accumulate on timescales much shorter than the divergence of arthropods and nematodes, and that mechanisms other than conservation of individual binding sites within enhancer elements are responsible for the conservation of expression patterns of homologous genes between distantly related species.

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