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PLoS Genet. 2012 May;8(5):e1002744. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1002744. Epub 2012 May 31.

Fitness landscape transformation through a single amino acid change in the rho terminator.

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Joint Centers for Systems Biology, Columbia University, New York, New York, United States of America.


Regulatory networks allow organisms to match adaptive behavior to the complex and dynamic contingencies of their native habitats. Upon a sudden transition to a novel environment, the mismatch between the native behavior and the new niche provides selective pressure for adaptive evolution through mutations in elements that control gene expression. In the case of core components of cellular regulation and metabolism, with broad control over diverse biological processes, such mutations may have substantial pleiotropic consequences. Through extensive phenotypic analyses, we have characterized the systems-level consequences of one such mutation (rho*) in the global transcriptional terminator Rho of Escherichia coli. We find that a single amino acid change in Rho results in a massive change in the fitness landscape of the cell, with widely discrepant fitness consequences of identical single locus perturbations in rho* versus rho(WT) backgrounds. Our observations reveal the extent to which a single regulatory mutation can transform the entire fitness landscape of the cell, causing a massive change in the interpretation of individual mutations and altering the evolutionary trajectories which may be accessible to a bacterial population.

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