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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Jun 21;108(25):10036-43. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1105937108. Epub 2011 May 18.

Evolutionary origin of a novel gene expression pattern through co-option of the latent activities of existing regulatory sequences.

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Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Laboratory of Molecular Biology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706, USA.


Spatiotemporal changes in gene expression underlie many evolutionary novelties in nature. However, the evolutionary origins of novel expression patterns, and the transcriptional control elements ("enhancers") that govern them, remain unclear. Here, we sought to explore the molecular genetic mechanisms by which new enhancers arise. We undertook a survey of closely related Drosophila species to identify recently evolved novel gene expression patterns and traced their evolutionary history. Analyses of gene expression in a variety of developing tissues of the Drosophila melanogaster species subgroup revealed high rates of expression pattern divergence, including numerous evolutionary losses, heterochronic shifts, and expansions or contractions of expression domains. However, gains of novel expression patterns were much less frequent. One gain was observed for the Neprilysin-1 (Nep1) gene, which has evolved a unique expression pattern in optic lobe neuroblasts of Drosophila santomea. Dissection of the Nep1 cis-regulatory region localized a newly derived optic lobe enhancer activity to a region of an intron that has accumulated a small number of mutations. The Nep1 optic lobe enhancer overlaps with other enhancer activities, from which the novel activity was co-opted. We suggest that the novel optic lobe enhancer evolved by exploiting the cryptic activity of extant regulatory sequences, and this may reflect a general mechanism whereby new enhancers evolve.

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