Levels of gene expression underpin organismal phenotypes1,2, but the nature of selection that acts on gene expression and its role in adaptive evolution remain unknown1,2. Here we assayed gene expression in rice (Oryza sativa)3, and used phenotypic selection analysis to estimate the type and strength of selection on the levels of more than 15,000 transcripts4,5. Variation in most transcripts appears (nearly) neutral or under very weak stabilizing selection in wet paddy conditions (with median standardized selection differentials near zero), but selection is stronger under drought conditions. Overall, more transcripts are conditionally neutral (2.83%) than are antagonistically pleiotropic6 (0.04%), and transcripts that display lower levels of expression and stochastic noise7–9 and higher levels of plasticity9 are under stronger selection. Selection strength was further weakly negatively associated with levels of cis-regulation and network connectivity9. Our multivariate analysis suggests that selection acts on the expression of photosynthesis genes4,5, but that the efficacy of selection is genetically constrained under drought conditions10. Drought selected for earlier flowering11,12 and a higher expression of OsMADS18 (Os07g0605200), which encodes a MADS-box transcription factor and is a known regulator of early flowering13—marking this gene as a drought-escape gene11,12. The ability to estimate selection strengths provides insights into how selection can shape molecular traits at the core of gene action.
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