Int. J. Dev. Biol. 47: 665 - 673 (2003)
© UPV/EHU Press

Evolution of cis-regulatory regions versus codifying regions.

Francisco Rodríguez-Trelles, Rosa Tarrío and Francisco J Ayala

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Irvine, California 92697-2525, USA.

ABSTRACT Efforts to understand the genetic basis of evolutionary change have concentrated on proteins and their encoding DNA sequences. These studies have brought to light patterns and processes at the nucleotide level, yet the complex functional relationships between genetic variants and phenotypes remain poorly known. The realization that even a complete description of proteins and the effects of their activity will not suffice to understand the conditions under which they are time- and tissue-specifically expressed or repressed during development has refocused attention on cis-regulatory regions. In particular, promoter sequences are thought to hold the key for understanding the evolution of phenotypic differences between species. This is because of their complex organization into independent modules such that, unlike coding sequences in which mutations affect protein function every time the protein is expressed, mutations in cis-regulatory sequences may have minor or no pleiotropic effects. Complex information-encoding makes cis-regulatory regions poorly amenable to comparative methods designed for coding sequences. Some general conclusions are emerging as to how genetic variation is distributed across regulatory networks and the processes modulating the structure of this variation. We bring into this emerging scenario several recent findings pointing to different ways in which spliceosomal introns, pseudogenes and patterns of point mutation can be active players for the evolution of novel transcriptional profiles.