The evolution of transcriptional regulation in eukaryotes

Gregory A. Wray, Matthew W. Hahn, Ehab Abouheif, James P. Balhoff, Margaret Pizer, Matthew V. Rockman, Laura A. Romano

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Gene expression is central to the genotype-phenotype relationship in all organisms, and it is an important component of the genetic basis for evolutionary change in diverse aspects of phenotype. However, the evolution of transcriptional regulation remains understudied and poorly understood. Here we review the evolutionary dynamics of promoter, or cis-regulatory, sequences and the evolutionary mechanisms that shape them. Existing evidence indicates that populations harbor extensive genetic variation in promoter sequences, that a substantial fraction of this variation has consequences for both biochemical and organismal phenotype, and that some of this functional variation is sorted by selection. As with protein-coding sequences, rates and patterns of promoter sequence evolution differ considerably among loci and among clades for reasons that are not well understood. Studying the evolution of transcriptional regulation poses empirical and conceptual challenges beyond those typically encountered in analyses of coding sequence evolution: promoter organization is much less regular than that of coding sequences, and sequences required for the transcription of each locus reside at multiple other loci in the genome. Because of the strong context-dependence of transcriptional regulation, sequence inspection alone provides limited information about promoter function. Understanding the functional consequences of sequence differences among promoters generally requires biochemical and in vivo functional assays. Despite these challenges, important insights have already been gained into the evolution of transcriptional regulation, and the pace of discovery is accelerating.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1377-1419
Number of pages43
JournalMolecular Biology and Evolution
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1 2003


  • Binding site
  • Enhancer
  • Evolution of development
  • Genotype-phenotype relationship
  • Promoter
  • Transcription factor

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics


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