Divergence in gene regulation can play a major role in evolution. Here, we used a phylogenetic framework to measure mRNA profiles in 15 yeast species from the phylum Ascomycota and reconstruct the evolution of their modular regulatory programs along a time course of growth on glucose over 1 billion years. We found that modules have diverged proportionally to phylogenetic distance, with prominent changes in gene regulation accompanying changes in lifestyle and ploidy, especially in carbon metabolism. Paralogs have significantly contributed to regulatory divergence, typically within a very short window from their duplication. Paralogs from a whole genome duplication (WGD) event have a uniquely substantial contribution that extends over a longer span. Similar patterns occur when considering the evolution of the heat shock regulatory program measured in eight of the species, suggesting that these are general evolutionary principles.
The incredible diversity of living creatures belies the fact that their genes are quite similar. In the 1970s Mary-Claire King and Allan Wilson proposed that a process called gene regulation—which determines when, where and how genes are expressed as proteins—is responsible for this diversity. Four decades later, the central role of gene regulation in evolution has been confirmed in a wide range of species including bacteria, fungi, flies and mammals, although the details remain poorly understood. In recent years it has been suggested that the duplication of genes—and sometimes the duplication of whole genomes—has had a crucial influence on the part played by gene regulation in the evolution of many different species.
Ascomycota fungi are uniquely suited to the study of genetics and evolution because of their diversity—they include C. albicans, a fungus that is found in the human mouth and gut, and various species of yeast—and because many of their genomes have already been sequenced. Moreover, their genomes are relatively small, which simplifies the task of working out how it has changed over the course of evolution. It is also known that species in this branch of the tree of life diverged before and after an event in which a whole genome was duplicated.
Ascomycota fungi use glucose as a source of carbon in different ways during aerobic growth. Most, including C. albicans, are respiratory and rely on oxidative phosphorylation processes to produce energy. However, a small number—including S. cerevisiae and S. pombe, two types of yeast that are widely used as model organisms—prefer to ferment glucose, even when oxygen is available. Species that favor the latter respiro-fermentative lifestyle have evolved independently at least twice: once after the whole genome duplication event that lead to S. cerevisiae, and once when S. pombe and the other fission yeasts evolved.
Thompson et al. have measured mRNA profiles in 15 different species of yeast and reconstructed how the regulation of groups of genes (modules) have evolved over a period of more than 300 million years. They found that modules have diverged proportionally to evolutionary time, with prominent changes in gene regulation being associated with changes in lifestyle (especially changes in carbon metabolism) and a whole genome duplication event.
Gene duplication events result in gene paralogs—identical genes at different places in the genome—and these have made significant contributions to the evolution of different forms of gene regulation, especially just after the duplication event. Moreover, the paralogs produced in whole genome duplication events have resulted in bigger changes over longer periods of time. Similar patterns were observed in the regulation of the genes involved in the response to heat shock in eight of the species, which suggests that these are general evolutionary principles.
The changes in gene expression associated with the respiro-fermentative lifestyle may also have implications for our understanding of cancer: healthy cells rely on oxidative phosphorylation to produce energy whereas, similar to yeast cells, most cancerous cells rely on respiro-fermentation. Furthermore, yeast cells and cancer cells both support their rapid growth and proliferation by using glucose for biosynthesis to support cell division, although this process is not fully understood. Normal cells, on the other hand, use glucose primarily for energy and tend not to divide rapidly.
Thompson et al. found that the genes encoding enzymes in two biosynthetic pathways—one that produces the nucleotides necessary for DNA replication, and one that synthesizes glycine—are induced in respiro-fermentative yeasts but repressed in respiratory yeast cells. The fact that similar changes are observed in the same two pathways when normal cells become cancer cells suggests that these pathways have an important role in the development of cancer. The framework developed by Thompson et al. could also be used to explore the evolution of gene regulation in other species and biological processes.