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Protein Sci. 2016 Jul;25(7):1219-26. doi: 10.1002/pro.2928. Epub 2016 Apr 6.

Quantifying and understanding the fitness effects of protein mutations: Laboratory versus nature.

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Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, Massachusetts, 01605.
Department of Biological Chemistry, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, 76100, Israel.


The last decade has seen a growing number of experiments aimed at systematically mapping the effects of mutations in different proteins, and of attempting to correlate their biophysical and biochemical effects with organismal fitness. While insightful, systematic laboratory measurements of fitness effects present challenges and difficulties. Here, we discuss the limitations associated with such measurements, and in particular the challenge of correlating the effects of mutations at the single protein level ("protein fitness") with their effects on organismal fitness. A variety of experimental setups are used, with some measuring the direct effects on protein function and others monitoring the growth rate of a model organism carrying the protein mutants. The manners by which fitness effects are calculated and presented also vary, and the conclusions, including the derived distributions of fitness effects of mutations, vary accordingly. The comparison of the effects of mutations in the laboratory to the natural protein diversity, namely to amino acid changes that have fixed in the course of millions of years of evolution, is also debatable. The results of laboratory experiments may, therefore, be less relevant to understanding long-term inter-species variations yet insightful with regard to short-term polymorphism, for example, in the study of the effects of human SNPs.


SNP; mutational scan; polymorphism; protein evolution; systematic mutational mapping

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