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Combinatorial effects of transposable elements on gene expression and phenotypic robustness in Drosophila melanogaster development.

  • Author(s): Clemmons, AW
  • Wasserman, SA
  • et al.
Abstract

Embryonic patterning displays remarkable consistency from individual to individual despite frequent environmental perturbations and diverse genetic contexts. Stochastic influences on the cellular environment may cause transcription rates to fluctuate, but these fluctuations rarely lead to developmental defects or disease. Here we characterize a set of recessive alleles of the Toll pathway component tube that destabilize embryonic dorsoventral patterning in Drosophila melanogaster. Females bearing these tube alleles generate embryos of an unusually wide range of dorsalized phenotypes, with the distributions across this range being unique for each allele. We determine that the mutant lines have in common a retrotransposon insertion upstream of the tube transcription start site. Genetic and molecular approaches demonstrate that this insertion dramatically reduces maternal expression of tube, thereby uncovering the inherent variability in gene expression. We further find that additional transposable element insertions near the tube gene synergistically enhance the phenotype caused by the sensitizing upstream insertion. These studies document how phenotypic variability can arise from normally occurring fluctuations around reduced mean expression and illustrate the contribution of transposons, individually and combinatorially, to such a state.

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