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Proc Biol Sci. 2013 Aug 14;280(1768):20131313. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.1313. Print 2013 Oct 7.

The evolution of complex gene regulation by low-specificity binding sites.

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Department of Biology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA.


Requirements for gene regulation vary widely both within and among species. Some genes are constitutively expressed, whereas other genes require complex regulatory control. Transcriptional regulation is often controlled by a module of multiple transcription factor binding sites that, in combination, mediate the expression of a target gene. Here, we study how such regulatory modules evolve in response to natural selection. Using a population-genetic model, we show that complex regulatory modules which contain a larger number of binding sites must employ binding motifs that are less specific, on average, compared with smaller regulatory modules. This effect is extremely general, and it holds regardless of the selected binding logic that a module experiences. We attribute this phenomenon to the inability of stabilizing selection to maintain highly specific sites in large regulatory modules. Our analysis helps to explain broad empirical trends in the Saccharomyces cerevisiae regulatory network: those genes with a greater number of distinct transcriptional regulators feature less-specific binding motifs, compared with genes with fewer regulators. Our results also help to explain empirical trends in module size and motif specificity across species, ranging from prokaryotes to single-cellular and multi-cellular eukaryotes.


cis-regulatory evolution; gene regulation; population genetics

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