First-Step Mutations during Adaptation Restore the Expression of Hundreds of Genes

Mol Biol Evol. 2016 Jan;33(1):25-39. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msv228. Epub 2015 Oct 24.


The temporal change of phenotypes during the adaptive process remains largely unexplored, as do the genetic changes that affect these phenotypic changes. Here we focused on three mutations that rose to high frequency in the early stages of adaptation within 12 Escherichia coli populations subjected to thermal stress (42 °C). All the mutations were in the rpoB gene, which encodes the RNA polymerase beta subunit. For each mutation, we measured the growth curves and gene expression (mRNAseq) of clones at 42 °C. We also compared growth and gene expression with their ancestor under unstressed (37 °C) and stressed conditions (42 °C). Each of the three mutations changed the expression of hundreds of genes and conferred large fitness advantages, apparently through the restoration of global gene expression from the stressed toward the prestressed state. These three mutations had a similar effect on gene expression as another single mutation in a distinct domain of the rpoB protein. Finally, we compared the phenotypic characteristics of one mutant, I572L, with two high-temperature adapted clones that have this mutation plus additional background mutations. The background mutations increased fitness, but they did not substantially change gene expression. We conclude that early mutations in a global transcriptional regulator cause extensive changes in gene expression, many of which are likely under positive selection for their effect in restoring the prestress physiology.

Keywords: bacterial adaptation; experimental evolution; gene expression.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / genetics*
  • DNA-Directed RNA Polymerases / genetics
  • Escherichia coli / genetics
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / genetics
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Genes, Bacterial / genetics*
  • Hot Temperature
  • Mutation / genetics*


  • Escherichia coli Proteins
  • rpoB protein, E coli
  • DNA-Directed RNA Polymerases