Complexity and conservation of regulatory landscapes underlie evolutionary resilience of mammalian gene expression

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Horvath, Julie 
Flicek, Paul 

To gain insight into how mammalian gene expression is controlled by rapidly evolving regulatory elements, we jointly analysed promoter and enhancer activity with downstream transcription levels in liver samples from fifteen species. Genes associated with complex regulatory landscapes generally exhibit high expression levels that remain evolutionarily stable. While the number of regulatory elements is the key driver of transcriptional output and resilience, regulatory conservation matters: elements active across mammals most effectively stabilise gene expression. In contrast, recently-evolved enhancers typically contribute weakly, consistent with their high evolutionary plasticity. These effects are observed across the entire mammalian clade and robust to potential confounders, such as gene expression level. Using liver as a representative somatic tissue, our results illuminate how the evolutionary stability of gene expression is profoundly entwined with both the number and conservation of surrounding promoters and enhancers.

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European Research Council (615584)
Cancer Research UK (unknown)
European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) (unknown)
Wellcome Trust (202878/Z/16/Z)