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The population genetics of cooperative gene regulation

Alexander J Stewart12, Robert M Seymour23, Andrew Pomiankowski24* and Joshua B Plotkin1*

Author Affiliations

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

2 CoMPLEX, University College London, London, UK

3 Department of Mathematics, University College London, London, UK

4 Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, University College London, London, UK

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012, 12:173  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-173

Published: 6 September 2012



Changes in gene regulatory networks drive the evolution of phenotypic diversity both within and between species. Rewiring of transcriptional networks is achieved either by changes to transcription factor binding sites or by changes to the physical interactions among transcription factor proteins. It has been suggested that the evolution of cooperative binding among factors can facilitate the adaptive rewiring of a regulatory network.


We use a population-genetic model to explore when cooperative binding of transcription factors is favored by evolution, and what effects cooperativity then has on the adaptive re-writing of regulatory networks. We consider a pair of transcription factors that regulate multiple targets and overlap in the sets of target genes they regulate. We show that, under stabilising selection, cooperative binding between the transcription factors is favoured provided the amount of overlap between their target genes exceeds a threshold. The value of this threshold depends on several population-genetic factors: strength of selection on binding sites, cost of pleiotropy associated with protein-protein interactions, rates of mutation and population size. Once it is established, we find that cooperative binding of transcription factors significantly accelerates the adaptive rewiring of transcriptional networks under positive selection. We compare our qualitative predictions to systematic data on Saccharomyces cerevisiae transcription factors, their binding sites, and their protein-protein interactions.


Our study reveals a rich set of evolutionary dynamics driven by a tradeoff between the beneficial effects of cooperative binding at targets shared by a pair of factors, and the detrimental effects of cooperative binding for non-shared targets. We find that cooperative regulation will evolve when transcription factors share a sufficient proportion of their target genes. These findings help to explain empirical pattens in datasets of transcription factors in Saccharomyces cerevisiae and, they suggest that changes to physical interactions between transcription factors can play a critical role in the evolution of gene regulatory networks.