Functional and evolutionary implications of in silico gene deletions
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Understanding how genetic modifications, individual or in combination, affect organismal fitness or other phenotypes is a challenge common to several areas of biology, including human health & genetics, metabolic engineering, and evolutionary biology. The importance of a gene can be quantified by measuring the phenotypic impact of its associated genetic perturbations "here and now", e.g. the growth rate of a mutant microbe. However, each gene also maintains a historical record of its cumulative importance maintained throughout millions of years of natural selection in the form of its degree of sequence conservation along phylogenetic branches. This thesis focuses on whether and how the phenotypic and evolutionary importance of genes are related to each other. Towards this goal, I developed a new approach for characterizing the phenotypic consequences of genetic modifications in genome-scale biochemical networks using constraint-based computational models of metabolism. In particular, I investigated the impact of gene loss events on fitness in the model organism Saccharomyces cerevisiae, and found that my new metric for estimating the cost of gene deletion correlates with gene evolutionary rate. I found that previous failures to uncover this correlation using similar techniques may have been the result of an incorrect assumption about how isoenzymes deletions affect the reaction they catalyze. I next hypothesized that the improvement my metric showed in predicting the cost of isoenzyme loss could translate into an improved capacity to predict the impact of pairs of gene deletions involving isoenzymes. Studies of such pair-wise genetic perturbations are important, because the extent to which a genetic perturbation modifies any given phenotype is often dependent on the genetic background upon which it has been performed. This lack of independence within sets of perturbations is termed epistasis. My results showed that, indeed, the new metric displays an increased capacity to predict epistatic interactions between pairs of genes. In addition to shedding light on the relationship between the functional and evolutionary importance of genes, further developments of our approach may lead to better prediction of gene knockout phenotypes, with applications ranging from metabolic engineering to the search for gene targets for therapeutic applications.