Optimization of gene expression by natural selection

Bedford T, Hartl DL. 2009. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 106: 1133-1138.


It is generally assumed that stabilizing selection promoting a phenotypic optimum acts to shape variation in quantitative traits across individuals and species. Although gene expression represents an intensively studied molecular phenotype, the extent to which stabilizing selection limits divergence in gene expression remains contentious. In this study, we present a theoretical framework for the study of stabilizing and directional selection using data from between-species divergence of continuous traits. This framework, based upon Brownian motion, is analytically tractable and can be used in maximum-likelihood or Bayesian parameter estimation. We apply this model to gene-expression levels in 7 species of Drosophila, and find that gene-expression divergence is substantially curtailed by stabilizing selection. However, we estimate the selective effect, s, of gene-expression change to be very small, approximately equal to Ns for a change of one standard deviation, where N is the effective population size. These findings highlight the power of natural selection to shape phenotype, even when the fitness effects of mutations are in the nearly neutral range.