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LSSS 2014-2015


Life Sciences Seminar Series


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Gunter Wagner

Alison Richard Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University

The Origin of a Novel Cell Type: the decidual cell of mammals

Selected Publications

Transformation of a transposon into a derived prolactin promoter with function during human pregnancy.Emera D, Wagner GP
Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2012 Jul 10; 109(28):11246-51


Transposable elements (TEs) are known to provide DNA for host regulatory functions, but the mechanisms underlying the transformation of TEs into cis-regulatory elements are unclear. In humans two TEs--MER20 and MER39--contribute the enhancer/promoter for decidual prolactin (dPRL), which is dramatically induced during pregnancy. We show that evolution of the strong human dPRL promoter was a multistep process that took millions of years. First, MER39 inserted near MER20 in the primate/rodent ancestor, and then there were two phases of activity enhancement in primates. Through the mapping of causal nucleotide substitutions, we demonstrate that strong promoter activity in apes involves epistasis between transcription factor binding sites (TFBSs) ancestral to MER39 and derived sites. We propose a mode of molecular evolution that describes the process by which MER20/MER39 was transformed into a strong promoter, called "epistatic capture." Epistatic capture is the stabilization of a TFBS that is ancestral but variable in outgroup lineages, and is fixed in the ingroup because of epistatic interactions with derived TFBSs. Finally, we note that evolution of human promoter activity coincides with the emergence of a unique reproductive character in apes, highly invasive placentation. Because prolactin communicates with immune cells during pregnancy, which regulate fetal invasion into maternal tissues, we speculate that ape dPRL promoter activity evolved in response to increased invasiveness of ape fetal tissue.

Transposon-mediated rewiring of gene regulatory networks contributed to the evolution of pregnancy in mammals.Lynch VJ, Leclerc RD, May G, Wagner GP
Nat. Genet. 2011 Nov; 43(11):1154-9


A fundamental challenge in biology is explaining the origin of novel phenotypic characters such as new cell types; the molecular mechanisms that give rise to novelties are unclear. We explored the gene regulatory landscape of mammalian endometrial cells using comparative RNA-Seq and found that 1,532 genes were recruited into endometrial expression in placental mammals, indicating that the evolution of pregnancy was associated with a large-scale rewiring of the gene regulatory network. About 13% of recruited genes are within 200 kb of a Eutherian-specific transposable element (MER20). These transposons have the epigenetic signatures of enhancers, insulators and repressors, directly bind transcription factors essential for pregnancy and coordinately regulate gene expression in response to progesterone and cAMP. We conclude that the transposable element, MER20, contributed to the origin of a novel gene regulatory network dedicated to pregnancy in placental mammals, particularly by recruiting the cAMP signaling pathway into endometrial stromal cells.

The pleiotropic structure of the genotype-phenotype map: the evolvability of complex organisms.Wagner GP, Zhang J
Nat. Rev. Genet. 2011 Mar; 12(3):204-13


It was first noticed 100 years ago that mutations tend to affect more than one phenotypic characteristic, a phenomenon that was called 'pleiotropy'. Because pleiotropy was found so frequently, the notion arose that pleiotropy is 'universal'. However, quantitative estimates of pleiotropy have not been available until recently. These estimates show that pleiotropy is highly restricted and are more in line with the notion of variational modularity than with universal pleiotropy. This finding has major implications for the evolvability of complex organisms and the mapping of disease-causing mutations.

Evolutionary novelties.Wagner GP, Lynch VJ
Curr. Biol. 2010 Jan 26; 20(2):R48-52


How novel traits arise in organisms has long been a major problem in biology. Indeed, the sharpest critiques of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection often centered on explaining how novel body parts arose. In his response to The Origin of Species, St. George J. Mivart challenged Darwin to explain the origin of evolutionary novelties such as the mammary gland, asking if it was "conceivable that the young of any animal was ever saved from destruction by accidentally sucking a drop of scarcely nutritious fluid from an accidentally hypertrophied cutaneous gland of its mother?" It is only now that modern molecular and genomic tools are being brought to bear on this question that we are finally in a position to answer Mivart's challenge and explain one of the most fundamental questions of biology: how does novelty arise in evolution?

Pleiotropic scaling of gene effects and the 'cost of complexity'.Wagner GP, Kenney-Hunt JP, Pavlicev M, Peck JR, Waxman D, Cheverud JM
Nature 2008 Mar 27; 452(7186):470-2


As perceived by Darwin, evolutionary adaptation by the processes of mutation and selection is difficult to understand for complex features that are the product of numerous traits acting in concert, for example the eye or the apparatus of flight. Typically, mutations simultaneously affect multiple phenotypic characters. This phenomenon is known as pleiotropy. The impact of pleiotropy on evolution has for decades been the subject of formal analysis. Some authors have suggested that pleiotropy can impede evolutionary progress (a so-called 'cost of complexity'). The plausibility of various phenomena attributed to pleiotropy depends on how many traits are affected by each mutation and on our understanding of the correlation between the number of traits affected by each gene substitution and the size of mutational effects on individual traits. Here we show, by studying pleiotropy in mice with the use of quantitative trait loci (QTLs) affecting skeletal characters, that most QTLs affect a relatively small subset of traits and that a substitution at a QTL has an effect on each trait that increases with the total number of traits affected. This suggests that evolution of higher organisms does not suffer a 'cost of complexity' because most mutations affect few traits and the size of the effects does not decrease with pleiotropy.