Rapid sequence evolution of transcription factors controlling neuron differentiation in Caenorhabditis
Molecular Biology and Evolution 26(10): 2373-2386
Whether phenotypic evolution proceeds predominantly through changes in regulatory sequences is a controversial issue in evolutionary genetics. Ample evidence indicates that the evolution of gene regulatory networks via changes in cis-regulatory sequences is an important determinant of phenotypic diversity. However, recent experimental work suggests that the role of transcription factor (TF) divergence in developmental evolution may be underestimated. In order to help understand what levels of constraints are acting on the coding sequence of developmental regulatory genes, evolutionary rates were investigated among 48 TFs required for neuronal development in Caenorhabditis elegans. Allelic variation was then sampled for 28 of these genes within a population of the related species Caenorhabditis remanei. Neuronal TFs are more divergent, both within and between species, than structural genes. TFs affecting different neuronal classes are under different levels of selective constraints. The regulatory genes controlling the differentiation of chemosensory neurons evolve particularly fast and exhibit higher levels of within- and between-species nucleotide variation than TFs required for the development of several neuronal classes and TFs required for motorneuron differentiation. The TFs affecting chemosensory neuron development are also more divergent than chemosensory genes expressed in the neurons they differentiate. These results illustrate that TFs are not as highly constrained as commonly thought and suggest that the role of divergence in developmental regulatory genes during the evolution of gene regulatory networks requires further attention.