Stress-directed adaptive mutations and evolution


  • Barbara E. Wright

    Corresponding author
    1. Division of Biological Sciences, University of Montana, Missoula, MT 59812, USA.
      E-mail; Tel. (+1) 406 243 6676; Fax (+1) 406 243 4184.
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E-mail; Tel. (+1) 406 243 6676; Fax (+1) 406 243 4184.


Comparative biochemistry demonstrates that the metabolites, complex biochemical networks, enzymes and regulatory mechanisms essential to all living cells are conserved in amazing detail throughout evolution. Thus, in order to evolve, an organism must overcome new adverse conditions without creating different but equally dangerous alterations in its ongoing successful metabolic relationship with its environment. Evidence suggests that stable long-term acquisitive evolution results from minor increases in mutation rates of genes related to a particular stress, with minimal disturbance to the balanced and resilient metabolism critical for responding to an unpredictable environment. Microorganisms have evolved specific biochemical feedback mechanisms that direct mutations to genes derepressed by starvation or other stressors in their environment. Transcription of the activated genes creates localized supercoiling and DNA secondary structures with unpaired bases vulnerable to mutation. The resulting mutants provide appropriate variants for selection by the stress involved, thus accelerating evolution with minimal random damage to the genome. This model has successfully predicted mutation frequencies in genes of E. coli and humans. Stressed cells observed in the laboratory over hundreds of generations accumulate mutations that also arise by this mechanism. When this occurs in repair-deficient mutator strains with high rates of random mutation, the specific stress-directed mutations are also enhanced.