Indexed on: 20 Mar '10Published on: 20 Mar '10Published in: PLoS genetics
Genetic and developmental architecture may bias the mutationally available phenotypic spectrum. Although such asymmetries in the introduction of variation may influence possible evolutionary trajectories, we lack quantitative characterization of biases in mutationally inducible phenotypic variation, their genotype-dependence, and their underlying molecular and developmental causes. Here we quantify the mutationally accessible phenotypic spectrum of the vulval developmental system using mutation accumulation (MA) lines derived from four wild isolates of the nematodes Caenorhabditis elegans and C. briggsae. The results confirm that on average, spontaneous mutations degrade developmental precision, with MA lines showing a low, yet consistently increased, proportion of developmental defects and variants. This result indicates strong purifying selection acting to maintain an invariant vulval phenotype. Both developmental system and genotype significantly bias the spectrum of mutationally inducible phenotypic variants. First, irrespective of genotype, there is a developmental bias, such that certain phenotypic variants are commonly induced by MA, while others are very rarely or never induced. Second, we found that both the degree and spectrum of mutationally accessible phenotypic variation are genotype-dependent. Overall, C. briggsae MA lines exhibited a two-fold higher decline in precision than the C. elegans MA lines. Moreover, the propensity to generate specific developmental variants depended on the genetic background. We show that such genotype-specific developmental biases are likely due to cryptic quantitative variation in activities of underlying molecular cascades. This analysis allowed us to identify the mutationally most sensitive elements of the vulval developmental system, which may indicate axes of potential evolutionary variation. Consistent with this scenario, we found that evolutionary trends in the vulval system concern the phenotypic characters that are most easily affected by mutation. This study provides an empirical assessment of developmental bias and the evolution of mutationally accessible phenotypes and supports the notion that such bias may influence the directions of evolutionary change.