Lineage-specific transcription factors and the evolution of gene regulatory networks

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Abstract

Nature is replete with examples of diverse cell types, tissues and body plans, forming very different creatures from genomes with similar gene complements. However, while the genes and the structures of proteins they encode can be highly conserved, the production of those proteins in specific cell types and at specific developmental time points might differ considerably between species. A full understanding of the factors that orchestrate gene expression will be essential to fully understand evolutionary variety. Transcription factor (TF) proteins, which form gene regulatory networks (GRNs) to act in cooperative or competitive partnerships to regulate gene expression, are key components of these unique regulatory programs. Although many TFs are conserved in structure and function, certain classes of TFs display extensive levels of species diversity. In this review, we highlight families of TFs that have expanded through gene duplication events to create species-unique repertoires in different evolutionary lineages. We discuss how the hierarchical structures of GRNs allow for flexible small to large-scale phenotypic changes. We survey evidence that explains how newly evolved TFs may be integrated into an existing GRN and how molecular changes in TFs might impact the GRNs. Finally, we review examples of traits that evolved due to lineage-specific TFs and species differences in GRNs.

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