Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology


Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology

First Thesis Advisor

Daniel N. A. Bolon, PhD


Molecular Evolution, Mutation, Genetic Fitness, Genetic Techniques, Point Mutation, Saccharomyces cerevisiae Proteins


Dissertations, UMMS; Evolution, Molecular; Mutation; Genetic Fitness; Genetic Techniques; Point Mutation; Saccharomyces cerevisiae Proteins


Evolution is the single cohesive logical framework in which all biological processes may exist simultaneously. Incremental changes in phenotype over imperceptibly large timescales have given rise to the enormous diversity of life we witness on earth both presently and through the natural record. The basic unit of evolution is mutation, and by perturbing biological processes, mutations may alter the fitness of an individual. However, the fitness effect of a mutation is difficult to infer from historical record, and complex to obtain experimentally in an efficient and accurate manner.

We have recently developed a high throughput method to iteratively mutagenize regions of essential genes in yeast and subsequently analyze individual mutant fitness termed Exceedingly Methodical and Parallel Investigation of Randomized Individual Codons (EMPIRIC). Utilizing this technique as exemplified in Chapters II and III, it is possible to determine the fitness effects of all possible point mutations in parallel through growth competition followed by a high throughput sequencing readout. We have employed this technique to determine the distribution of fitness effects in a nine amino acid region of the Hsp90 gene of S. cerevisiae under elevated temperature, and found the bimodal distribution of fitness effects to be remarkably consistent with near-neutral theory. Comparing the measured fitness effects of mutants to the natural record, phylogenetic alignments appear to be a poor predictor of experimental fitness.

In Chapter IV, to further interrogate the properties of this region, library competition under conditions of elevated temperature and salinity were performed to study the potential of protein adaptation. Strikingly, whereas both optimal and elevated temperatures produced no statistically significant beneficial mutations, under conditions of elevated salinity, adaptive mutations appear with fitness advantages up to 8% greater than wild type. Of particular interest, mutations conferring fitness benefits under conditions of elevated salinity almost always experience a fitness defect in other experimental conditions, indicating these mutations are environmentally specialized. Applying the experimental fitness measurements to long standing theoretical predictions of adaptation, our results are remarkably consistent with Fisher’s Geometric Model of protein evolution.

Epistasis between mutations can have profound effects on evolutionary trajectories. Although the importance of epistasis has been realized since the early 1900s, the interdependence of mutations is difficult to study in vivo due to the stochastic and constant nature of background mutations. In Chapter V, utilizing the EMPIRIC methodology allows us to study the distribution of fitness effects in the context of mutant genetic backgrounds with minimal influence from unintended background mutations. By analyzing intragenic epistatic interactions, we uncovered a complex interplay between solvent shielded structural residues and solvent exposed hydrophobic surface in the amino acid 582-590 region of Hsp90. Additionally, negative epistasis appears to be negatively correlated with mutational promiscuity while additive interactions are positively correlated, indicating potential avenues for proteins to navigate fitness ‘valleys’.

In summary, the work presented in this dissertation is focused on applying experimental context to the theory-rich field of evolutionary biology. The development and implementation of a novel methodology for the rapid and accurate assessment of organismal fitness has allowed us to address some of the most basic processes of evolution including adaptation and protein expression level. Through the work presented here and by investigators across the world, the application of experimental data to evolutionary theory has the potential to improve drug design and human health in general, as well as allow for predictive medicine in the coming era of personalized medicine.



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