The Scientific World Journal (Jan 2012)
In Silico Evolution of Gene Cooption in Pattern-Forming Gene Networks
Gene recruitment or cooption occurs when a gene, which may be part of an existing gene regulatory network (GRN), comes under the control of a new regulatory system. Such re-arrangement of pre-existing networks is likely more common for increasing genomic complexity than the creation of new genes. Using evolutionary computations (EC), we investigate how cooption affects the evolvability, outgrowth and robustness of GRNs. We use a data-driven model of insect segmentation, for the fruit fly Drosophila, and evaluate fitness by robustness to maternal variability—a major constraint in biological development. We compare two mechanisms of gene cooption: a simpler one with gene Introduction and Withdrawal operators; and one in which GRN elements can be altered by transposon infection. Starting from a minimal 2-gene network, insufficient for fitting the Drosophila gene expression patterns, we find a general trend of coopting available genes into the GRN, in order to better fit the data. With the transposon mechanism, we find co-evolutionary oscillations between genes and their transposons. These oscillations may offer a new technique in EC for overcoming premature convergence. Finally, we comment on how a differential equations (in contrast to Boolean) approach is necessary for addressing realistic continuous variation in biochemical parameters.