Changes in gene expression are a critical force driving the evolution of form and function. As a result, the mechanisms by which gene expression evolves have become a subject of intense interest. A number of investigators have measured evolutionary changes in gene expression at the chromatin, mRNA, and protein levels, leading to new insights about how species evolve. However, studies of different stages in gene expression have not always been in agreement. For example, the extremely rapid rates of evolutionary changes that have been widely observed at enhancers appear to conflict with the slower rates observed in mRNA abundance. We recently completed a major comparative study in primates showing that this disparity between enhancer and mRNA evolution, in part, reflects extensive compensation at enhancers that jointly determine transcription at target genes. Likewise, related findings have demonstrated that post-transcriptional changes buffer protein abundance to relatively more common differences in mRNA expression. Together, these recent findings demonstrate that evolutionary changes affecting multiple stages of transcriptional regulation often have interdependent effects on gene expression. Here we propose to determine how stages early during transcriptional regulation work in concert, either to conserve gene expression through compensatory changes across stages, or, in rare cases, to change mRNA in ways that alter organism phenotypes. Our central hypothesis is that interactions between stages are common, especially at long evolutionary time-scales. To test this hypothesis we propose an ambitious plan to collect rich genomic data profiling distinct stages of gene expression in two cell types and three tissues from nine mammalian species. We have focused our study on several early rate-limiting steps in mRNA production, using molecular assays selected to provide orthogonal sources of information about chromatin architecture (Hi-C/Hi-ChIP), accessibility (ATAC-seq), transcription (PRO-seq), and mRNA levels (RNA-seq). This project will produce the largest resource of genomic data uniformly collected across mammals to date. We will integrate genomic data using a suite of new computational tools, which together will provide a new understanding of how distinct regulatory stages work in concert during regulatory evolution.
Understanding how genetic and environmental factors cause changes at each stage of gene regulation will help us to understand the origin of phenotypic diversity between species, and ultimately to develop accurate models that triage regulatory genetic variation correlating with inherited human diseases. Likewise, understanding the genetic and environmental basis for evolutionary changes in the adaptive immune system and spermatogenesis of mammals will reveal new insights into the etiology of autoimmune, allergic, and infertility disorders in humans.