A mutation accumulation assay reveals a broad capacity for rapid evolution of gene expression

Nature. 2005 Nov 10;438(7065):220-3. doi: 10.1038/nature04114.


Mutation is the ultimate source of biological diversity because it generates the variation that fuels evolution. Gene expression is the first step by which an organism translates genetic information into developmental change. Here we estimate the rate at which mutation produces new variation in gene expression by measuring transcript abundances across the genome during the onset of metamorphosis in 12 initially identical Drosophila melanogaster lines that independently accumulated mutations for 200 generations. We find statistically significant mutational variation for 39% of the genome and a wide range of variability across corresponding genes. As genes are upregulated in development their variability decreases, and as they are downregulated it increases, indicating that developmental context affects the evolution of gene expression. A strong correlation between mutational variance and environmental variance shows that there is the potential for widespread canalization. By comparing the evolutionary rates that we report here with differences between species, we conclude that gene expression does not evolve according to strictly neutral models. Although spontaneous mutations have the potential to generate abundant variation in gene expression, natural variation is relatively constrained.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Drosophila / classification
  • Drosophila / genetics*
  • Drosophila melanogaster / genetics
  • Environment
  • Gene Expression Regulation / genetics*
  • Genetic Variation / genetics
  • Humans
  • Metamorphosis, Biological / genetics
  • Mutation / genetics*
  • Oligonucleotide Array Sequence Analysis
  • Phenotype
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics
  • RNA, Messenger / metabolism
  • Species Specificity
  • Time Factors


  • RNA, Messenger