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Open Access Research article

Compensatory evolution for a gene deletion is not limited to its immediate functional network

WR Harcombe, R Springman and JJ Bull*

Author Affiliations

Section of Integrative Biology, Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology, Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, University of Texas, Austin, Texas 78712, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:106  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-106

Published: 16 May 2009

Abstract

Background

Genetic disruption of an important phenotype should favor compensatory mutations that restore the phenotype. If the genetic basis of the phenotype is modular, with a network of interacting genes whose functions are specific to that phenotype, compensatory mutations are expected among the genes of the affected network. This perspective was tested in the bacteriophage T3 using a genome deleted of its DNA ligase gene, disrupting DNA metabolism.

Results

In two replicate, long-term adaptations, phage compensatory evolution accommodated the low ligase level provided by the host without reinventing its own ligase. In both lines, fitness increased substantially but remained well below that of the intact genome. Each line accumulated over a dozen compensating mutations during long-term adaptation, and as expected, many of the compensatory changes were within the DNA metabolism network. However, several compensatory changes were outside the network and defy any role in DNA metabolism or biochemical connection to the disruption. In one line, these extra-network changes were essential to the recovery. The genes experiencing compensatory changes were moderately conserved between T3 and its relative T7 (25% diverged), but the involvement of extra-network changes was greater in T3.

Conclusion

Compensatory evolution was only partly limited to the known functionally interacting partners of the deleted gene. Thus gene interactions contributing to fitness were more extensive than suggested by the functional properties currently ascribed to the genes. Compensatory evolution offers an easy method of discovering genome interactions among specific elements that does not rest on an a priori knowledge of those elements or their interactions.