Wagner, Andreas

Because gene expression is important for evolutionary adaptation, its misregulation is an important cause of maladaptation. A misregulated gene can be incorrectly silent (“off”) when a transcription factor (TF) that is required for its activation does not binds its regulatory region. Conversely, a misregulated gene can be incorrectly active (“on”) when a TF not normally involved in its activation binds its regulatory region, a phenomenon also known as regulatory crosstalk. DNA mutations that destroy or create TF binding sites on DNA are an important source of misregulation and crosstalk. Although misregulation reduces fitness in an environment to which an organism is well-adapted, it may become adaptive in a new environment. Here, I derive simple yet general mathematical expressions that delimit the conditions under which misregulation can be adaptive. These expressions depend on the strength of selection against misregulation, on the fraction of DNA sequence space filled with TF binding sites, and on the fraction of genes that must be expressed for optimal adaptation. I then use empirical data from RNA sequencing, protein-binding microarrays, and genome evolution, together with population genetic simulations to ask when these conditions are likely to be met. I show that they can be met under realistic circumstances, but these circumstances may vary among organisms and environments. My analysis provides a framework in which improved theory and data collection can help us demonstrate the role of misregulation in adaptation. It also shows that misregulation, like DNA mutation, is one of life’s many imperfections that can help propel Darwinian evolution.