A major role for noncoding regulatory mutations in the evolution of enzyme activity

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019 Jun 18;116(25):12383-12389. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1904071116. Epub 2019 May 31.


The quantitative evolution of protein activity is a common phenomenon, yet we know little about any general mechanistic tendencies that underlie it. For example, an increase (or decrease) in enzyme activity may evolve from changes in protein sequence that alter specific activity, or from changes in gene expression that alter the amount of protein produced. The latter in turn could arise via mutations that affect gene transcription, posttranscriptional processes, or copy number. Here, to determine the types of genetic changes underlying the quantitative evolution of protein activity, we dissected the basis of ecologically relevant differences in Alcohol dehydrogenase (Adh) enzyme activity between and within several Drosophila species. By using recombinant Adh transgenes to map the functional divergence of ADH enzyme activity in vivo, we find that amino acid substitutions explain only a minority (0 to 25%) of between- and within-species differences in enzyme activity. Instead, noncoding substitutions that occur across many parts of the gene (enhancer, promoter, and 5' and 3' untranslated regions) account for the majority of activity differences. Surprisingly, one substitution in a transcriptional Initiator element has occurred in parallel in two species, indicating that core promoters can be an important natural source of the tuning of gene activity. Furthermore, we show that both regulatory and coding substitutions contribute to fitness (resistance to ethanol toxicity). Although qualitative changes in protein specificity necessarily derive from coding mutations, these results suggest that regulatory mutations may be the primary source of quantitative changes in protein activity, a possibility overlooked in most analyses of protein evolution.

Keywords: Drosophila; alcohol dehydrogenase; enzyme; evolution; regulatory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Dehydrogenase / chemistry
  • Alcohol Dehydrogenase / genetics*
  • Alcohol Dehydrogenase / metabolism
  • Amino Acid Substitution
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Drosophila / classification
  • Drosophila / enzymology*
  • Models, Biological
  • Mutation*
  • Species Specificity


  • Alcohol Dehydrogenase

Associated data

  • GENBANK/MH614199
  • GENBANK/MH614205
  • GENBANK/KU559568.1