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Evolutionary resurrection of flagellar motility via rewiring of the nitrogen regulation system

Science  27 Feb 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6225, pp. 1014-1017
DOI: 10.1126/science.1259145

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Losing and then regaining flagella

The ability to adapt to changes in the function of gene regulators, as opposed to structural genes, is a crucial aspect of evolutionary change. Taylor et al. mutated a central regulator for the formation of flagella in the bacterium Pseudomonas fluorescens. They then put the mutated flagella-free bacteria under strong selection pressure to regain mobility. The mutated bacteria regained the lost flagella, and motility, within 4 days. Two stereotypical mutations diverted an evolutionarily related regulator that normally controls nitrogen uptake to control flagella biosynthesis. The mutations increased the levels of the co-opted regulator, then altered its specificity for the flagella pathway.

Science, this issue p. 1014

Abstract

A central process in evolution is the recruitment of genes to regulatory networks. We engineered immotile strains of the bacterium Pseudomonas fluorescens that lack flagella due to deletion of the regulatory gene fleQ. Under strong selection for motility, these bacteria consistently regained flagella within 96 hours via a two-step evolutionary pathway. Step 1 mutations increase intracellular levels of phosphorylated NtrC, a distant homolog of FleQ, which begins to commandeer control of the fleQ regulon at the cost of disrupting nitrogen uptake and assimilation. Step 2 is a switch-of-function mutation that redirects NtrC away from nitrogen uptake and toward its novel function as a flagellar regulator. Our results demonstrate that natural selection can rapidly rewire regulatory networks in very few, repeatable mutational steps.

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