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BACKGROUND: Promoters are sites of transcription initiation that harbour a high concentration of phenotype-associated genetic variation. The evolutionary gain and loss of promoters between species (collectively, termed turnover) is pervasive across mammalian genomes and may play a prominent role in driving human phenotypic diversity.
RESULTS: We classified human promoters by their evolutionary history during the divergence of mouse and human lineages from a common ancestor. This defined conserved, human-inserted and mouse-deleted promoters, and a class of functional-turnover promoters that align between species but are only active in humans. We show that promoters of all evolutionary categories are hotspots for substitution and often, insertion mutations. Loci with a history of insertion and deletion continue that mode of evolution within contemporary humans. The presence of an evolutionary volatile promoter within a gene is associated with increased expression variance between individuals, but only in the case of human-inserted and mouse-deleted promoters does that correspond to an enrichment of promoter-proximal genetic effects. Despite the enrichment of these molecular quantitative trait loci (QTL) at evolutionarily volatile promoters, this does not translate into a corresponding enrichment of phenotypic traits mapping to these loci.
CONCLUSIONS: Promoter turnover is pervasive in the human genome, and these promoters are rich in molecularly quantifiable but phenotypically inconsequential variation in gene expression. However, since evolutionarily volatile promoters show evidence of selection, coupled with high mutation rates and enrichment of QTLs, this implicates them as a source of evolutionary innovation and phenotypic variation, albeit with a high background of selectively neutral expression variation.
- Molecular phenotype
- Transcription regulation