A mutation's effect on fitness or phenotype may in part depend on the interaction of the mutation with the environment. The resulting phenotype or fitness is important, since it determines the adaptive potential of a species. To date, most studies have focused on alterations to protein-coding regions of the genome and their consequential fitness effects. Non-protein-coding regulatory regions have been largely neglected, although they make up a large and important part of an organism's genome. Here, we use human immunodeficiency virus type 1 as a model system to investigate fitness effects of random mutations in noncoding DNA-binding sites of the transcriptional promoter. We determined 242 fitness values for 35 viral promoter mutants with one, two, or three mutations across seven distinct cellular environments and identified that (i) all mutants have an effect in at least one cellular environment; (ii) fitness effects are highly dependent on the cellular environment; (iii) disadvantageous and advantageous mutations occur at high and similar frequencies; and (iv) epistatic effects of multiple mutations are rare. Our results underline the evolutionary potential of regulatory regions and indicate that DNA-binding sites evolve under strong selection, while at the same time, they are very plastic to environmental change
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