Transcription factor expression levels and environmental signals constrain transcription factor innovation

Matthew J. Shepherd, Mitchell Reynolds, Aidan P. Pierce, Alan M. Rice, Tiffany B. Taylor

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Evolutionary innovation of transcription factors frequently drives phenotypic diversification and adaptation to environmental change. Transcription factors can gain or lose connections to target genes, resulting in novel regulatory responses and phenotypes. However the frequency of functional adaptation varies between different regulators, even when they are closely related. To identify factors influencing propensity for innovation, we utilise a Pseudomonas fluorescens SBW25 strain rendered incapable of flagellar mediated motility in soft-agar plates via deletion of the flagellar master regulator (fleQ). This bacterium can evolve to rescue flagellar motility via gene regulatory network rewiring of an alternative transcription factor to rescue activity of FleQ. Previously, we have identified two members (out of 22) of the RpoN-dependent enhancer binding protein (RpoN-EBP) family of transcription factors (NtrC and PFLU1132) that are capable of innovating in this way. These two transcription factors rescue motility repeatably and reliably in a strict hierarchy – with NtrC the only route in a ∆fleQ background, and PFLU1132 the only route in a ∆fleQ∆ntrC background. However, why other members in the same transcription factor family have not been observed to rescue flagellar activity is unclear. Previous work shows that protein homology cannot explain this pattern within the protein family (RpoN-EBPs), and mutations in strains that rescued motility suggested high levels of transcription factor expression and activation drive innovation. We predict that mutations that increase expression of the transcription factor are vital to unlock evolutionary potential for innovation. Here, we construct titratable expression mutant lines for 11 of the RpoN-EBPs in P. fluorescens. We show that in five additional RpoN-EBPs (FleR, HbcR, GcsR, DctD, AauR and PFLU2209), high expression levels result in different mutations conferring motility rescue, suggesting alternative rewiring pathways. Our results indicate that expression levels (and not protein homology) of RpoN-EBPs are a key constraining factor in determining evolutionary potential for innovation. This suggests that transcription factors that can achieve high expression through few mutational changes, or transcription factors that are active in the selective environment, are more likely to innovate and contribute to adaptive gene regulatory network evolution.
Original languageEnglish
Article number001378
Number of pages11
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 16 Aug 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding information:
This work was funded by a Royal Society Research Fellows Grant (RG160491; awarded to T.B.T.) supporting M.J.S.; Windsor Fellowship Syncona PhD
Scholarship (awarded to M.R.) supporting M.R.; Royal Society Research Fellows Enhancement Award (RGF\EA\201057; awarded to T.B.T.) supporting
A.P.P.; Research Fellows Enhancement Award (RF\ERE\210249; awarded to T.B.T.) supporting A.M.R.; Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Research Fellowship (DH150169; awarded to and supporting T.B.T.).


  • Pseudomonas fluorescens
  • experimental evolution
  • gene regulatory networks
  • rhamnose inducible expression
  • transcription factor

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology


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