Few mechanisms are known that explain how transcription factors can adjust phenotypic outputs to accommodate differing environments. In Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the decision to mate or invade relies on environmental cues that converge on a shared transcription factor, Ste12. Specificity toward invasion occurs via Ste12 binding cooperatively with the cofactor Tec1. Here, we determine the range of phenotypic outputs (mating vs. invasion) of thousands of DNA-binding domain variants in Ste12 to understand how preference for invasion may arise. We find that single amino acid changes in the DNA-binding domain can shift the preference of yeast toward either mating or invasion. These mutations define two distinct regions of this domain, suggesting alternative modes of DNA binding for each trait. We characterize the DNA-binding specificity of wild-type Ste12 to identify a strong preference for spacing and orientation of both homodimeric and heterodimeric sites. Ste12 mutants that promote hyperinvasion in a Tec1-independent manner fail to bind cooperative sites with Tec1 and bind to unusual dimeric Ste12 sites composed of one near-perfect and one highly degenerate site. We propose a model in which Ste12 alone may have evolved to activate invasion genes, which could explain how preference for invasion arose in the many fungal pathogens that lack Tec1.
Keywords: evolutionary trade-off; fungal invasion; fungal mating; transcription factor; yeast.