Payne, JL; Khalid, F; Wagner, A

Much of gene regulation is carried out by proteins that bind DNA or RNA molecules at specific sequences. One class of such proteins is transcription factors, which bind short DNA sequences to regulate transcription. Another class is RNA binding proteins, which bind short RNA sequences to regulate RNA maturation, transport, and stability. Here, we study the robustness and evolvability of these regulatory mechanisms. To this end, we use experimental binding data from 172 human and fruit fly transcription factors and RNA binding proteins as well as human polymorphism data to study the evolution of binding sites in vivo. We find little difference between the robustness of regulatory protein-RNA interactions and transcription factor-DNA interactions to DNA mutations. In contrast, we find that RNA-mediated regulation is less evolvable than transcriptional regulation, because mutations are less likely to create interactions of an RNA molecule with a new RNA binding protein than they are to create interactions of a gene regulatory region with a new transcription factor. Our observations are consistent with the high level of conservation observed for interactions between RNA binding proteins and their target molecules as well as the evolutionary plasticity of regulatory regions bound by transcription factors. They may help explain why transcriptional regulation is implicated in many more evolutionary adaptations and innovations than RNA-mediated gene regulation.