Reprogramming of a gene’s expression pattern by acquisition and loss of sequences recognized by specific regulatory RNA binding proteins may be a major mechanism in the evolution of biological regulatory programs. We identified that RNA targets of Puf3 orthologs have been conserved over 100–500 million years of evolution in five eukaryotic lineages. Focusing on Puf proteins and their targets across 80 fungi, we constructed a parsimonious model for their evolutionary history. This model entails extensive and coordinated changes in the Puf targets as well as changes in the number of Puf genes and alterations of RNA binding specificity including that: 1) Binding of Puf3 to more than 200 RNAs whose protein products are predominantly involved in the production and organization of mitochondrial complexes predates the origin of budding yeasts and filamentous fungi and was maintained for 500 million years, throughout the evolution of budding yeast. 2) In filamentous fungi, remarkably, more than 150 of the ancestral Puf3 targets were gained by Puf4, with one lineage maintaining both Puf3 and Puf4 as regulators and a sister lineage losing Puf3 as a regulator of these RNAs. The decrease in gene expression of these mRNAs upon deletion of Puf4 in filamentous fungi ( N. crassa) in contrast to the increase upon Puf3 deletion in budding yeast ( S. cerevisiae) suggests that the output of the RNA regulatory network is different with Puf4 in filamentous fungi than with Puf3 in budding yeast. 3) The coregulated Puf4 target set in filamentous fungi expanded to include mitochondrial genes involved in the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle and other nuclear-encoded RNAs with mitochondrial function not bound by Puf3 in budding yeast, observations that provide additional evidence for substantial rewiring of post-transcriptional regulation. 4) Puf3 also expanded and diversified its targets in filamentous fungi, gaining interactions with the mRNAs encoding the mitochondrial electron transport chain (ETC) complex I as well as hundreds of other mRNAs with nonmitochondrial functions. The many concerted and conserved changes in the RNA targets of Puf proteins strongly support an extensive role of RNA binding proteins in coordinating gene expression, as originally proposed by Keene. Rewiring of Puf-coordinated mRNA targets and transcriptional control of the same genes occurred at different points in evolution, suggesting that there have been distinct adaptations via RNA binding proteins and transcription factors. The changes in Puf targets and in the Puf proteins indicate an integral involvement of RNA binding proteins and their RNA targets in the adaptation, reprogramming, and function of gene expression.
A map of the evolutionary history of Puf proteins and their RNA targets shows that reprogramming of global gene expression programs via adaptive mutations that affect protein-RNA interactions is an important source of biological diversity.
We set out to trace the evolutionary history of an RNA binding protein and how its interactions with targets change over evolution. Identifying this natural history is a step toward understanding the critical differences between organisms and how gene expression programs are rewired during evolution. Using bioinformatics and experimental approaches, we broadly surveyed the evolution of binding targets of a particular family of RNA binding proteins—the Puf proteins, whose protein sequences and target RNA sequences are relatively well-characterized—across 99 eukaryotic species. We found five groups of species in which targets have been conserved for at least 100 million years and then took advantage of genome sequences from a large number of fungal species to deeply investigate the conservation and changes in Puf proteins and their RNA targets. Our analyses identified multiple and extensive reconfigurations during the natural history of fungi and suggest that RNA binding proteins and their RNA targets are profoundly involved in evolutionary reprogramming of gene expression and help define distinct programs unique to each organism. Continuing to uncover the natural history of RNA binding proteins and their interactions will provide a unique window into the gene expression programs of present day species and point to new ways to engineer gene expression programs.