Background: Evolution depends on mutations: rare errors in the transmission of genetic information. Experimentally, mutations have been found by detecting altered phenotypes or sequencing complete genomes, but most mutations do not have overt phenotypes, and sequencing is expensive and has limited time resolution. The major source of mutations is DNA replication errors. Nearly all mistakes in DNA replication are detected and repaired by the mismatch repair machinery.
Results: We use a functional, fluorescently labeled derivative of one of the key mismatch repair proteins (MutL) to see and count the small fraction of errors in Escherichia coli that does not get repaired and is converted into stable mutations by the next round of DNA replication. Over a 300-fold range, there is a linear relationship between the frequency of fluorescent foci and the genetically measured mutation frequency, and the mean frequency of fluorescent foci agrees well with estimates of the global mutation rate.
Conclusion: We describe a method for detecting the majority of genomic mutations emerging in living cells, independently of their potential phenotype. The distribution of emerging mutations per cell is roughly Poisson distributed, suggesting that all the cells in the population have roughly the same mutation rate.
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