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Genetics. 1988 Sep;120(1):181-98.

Dosage-dependent modifiers of position effect variegation in Drosophila and a mass action model that explains their effect.

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Institute for Cancer Research, Fox Chase Cancer Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19111.


Twelve dominant enhancers of position effect variegation, representing four loci on the second and third chromosomes of Drosophila melanogaster, have been induced by P-element mutagenesis. Instead of simple transposon insertions, seven of these mutations are cytologically visible duplications and three are deficiencies. The duplications define two distinct regions, each coinciding with a locus that also behaves as a dominant haplo-dependent suppressor of variegation. Conversely, two of the deficiencies overlap with a region that contains a haplo-dependent enhancer of variegation while duplications of this same region act to suppress variegation. The third deficiency defines another haplo-dependent enhancer. These data indicate that loci capable of modifying variegation do so in an antipodal fashion through changes in the wild-type gene copy number and may be divided into two reciprocally acting classes. Class I modifiers enhance variegation when duplicated or suppress variegation when deficient. Class II modifiers enhance when deficient but suppress when duplicated. From our data, and those of others, we propose that in Drosophila there are about 20 to 30 dominant loci that modify variegation. Most appear to be of the class I type whereas only two class II modifiers have been identified so far. From these observations we put forth a model, based on the law of mass action, for understanding how such suppressor-enhancer loci function. We propose that each class I modifier codes for a structural protein component of heterochromatin and their effects on variegation are a consequence of their dosage dependent influence on the extent of the assembly of heterochromatin at the chromosomal site of the position effect. It is further proposed that class II modifiers may inhibit the class I products directly, bind to hypothetical termination sites that define heterochromatin boundaries or promote euchromatin formation. Consistent with our mass action model we find that combining two enhancers together produce additive and not epistatic effects. Also, since different enhancers have different relative strengths on different variegating mutants, we suggest that heterochromatic domains are constructed by a combinatorial association of proteins. The mass action model proposed here is of general significance for any assembly driven reaction and has implications for understanding a wide variety of biological phenomena.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS).

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