The impact of genetic background and cell lineage on the level and pattern of gene expression in position effect variegation


Background: Chromatin-based transcriptional silencing is often described as a stochastic process, largely because of the mosaic expression observed in position effect variegation (PEV), where a euchromatic reporter gene is silenced in some cells as a consequence of juxtaposition with heterochromatin. High levels of variation in PEV phenotypes are commonly observed in reporter stocks. To ascertain whether background mutations are the major contributors to this variation, we asked how much of the variation is determined by genetic variants segregating in the population, examining both the level and pattern of expression using the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, as the model. Results: Using selective breeding of a fourth chromosome PEV reporter line, 39C-12, we isolated two inbred lines exhibiting contrasting degrees of variegation (A1: low expression, D1: high expression). Within each inbred population, remarkable similarity is observed in the degree of variegation: 90% of the variation between the two inbred lines in the degree of silencing can be explained by genotype. Further analyses suggest that this result reflects the combined effect of multiple independent trans-acting loci. While the initial observations are based on a PEV phenotype scored in the fly eye (hsp70-white reporter), similar degrees of silencing were observed using a beta-gal reporter scored across the whole fly. Further, the pattern of variegation becomes almost identical within each inbred line; significant pigment enrichment in the same quadrant of the eye was found for both A1 and D1 lines despite different degrees of expression. Conclusions: The results indicate that background genetic variants play the major role in determining the variable degrees of PEV commonly observed in laboratory stocks. Interestingly, not only does the degree of variegation become consistent in inbred lines, the patterns of variegation also appear similar. Combining these observations with the spreading model for local heterochromatin formation, we propose an augmented stochastic model to describe PEV in which the genetic background drives the overall level of silencing, working with the cell lineage-specific regulatory environment to determine the on/off probability at the reporter locus in each cell. This model acknowledges cell type-specific events in the context of broader genetic impacts on heterochromatin formation. Keywords: Heterochromatin; Modifiers of PEV; PEV; Transcription regulation

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