Background: Gene duplication has been suggested to be an important process in the generation of evolutionary novelty. Neofunctionalization, as an adaptive process where one copy mutates into a function that was not present in the pre-duplication gene, is one mechanism that can lead to the retention of both copies. More recently, subfunctionalization, as a neutral process where the two copies partition the ancestral function, has been proposed as an alternative mechanism driving duplicate gene retention in organisms with small effective population sizes. The relative importance of these two processes is unclear.
Results: A set of lattice model genes that fold and bind to two peptide ligands with overlapping binding pockets, but not a third ligand present in the cell was designed. Each gene was duplicated in a model haploid species with a small constant population size and no recombination. One set of models allowed subfunctionalization of binding events following duplication, while another set did not allow subfunctionalization. Modeling under such conditions suggests that subfunctionalization plays an important role, but as a transition state to neofunctionalization rather than as a terminal fate of duplicated genes. There is no apparent selective pressure to maintain redundancy.
Conclusion: Subfunctionalization results in an increase in the preservation of duplicated gene copies, including those that are neofunctionalized, but never represents a substantial fraction of duplicate gene copies at any evolutionary time point and ultimately leads to neofunctionalization of those preserved copies. This conclusion also may reflect changes in gene function after duplication with time in real genomes.