First Advisor

Suzanne Estes

Date of Publication

Winter 4-4-2017

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (M.S.) in Biology






Caenorhabditis elegans, Mutation (Biology)



Physical Description

1 online resource (vii, 106 pages)


Mutation is a fundamental process that drives evolutionary change; however, most new mutations are deleterious for organismal fitness and can readily propagate within populations under a broad range of conditions. Mutational processes able to counteract deleterious mutation accumulation include: 1) reversion mutation back to wildtype, 2) acquisition of generally beneficial mutations, and 3) compensatory mutations that specifically mitigate the effects of previously-acquired deleterious mutations through epistasis. The potential for any of these mutation types alters our expectations for the impact of deleterious mutation in populations, but since the fitness effects of individual mutations are rarely characterized, the relative importance of beneficial and compensatory epistatic mutations is unknown. In this thesis, I characterized the nuclear mutations that arose in a previous mutation accumulation (MA) experiment using Caenorhabditis elegans nematodes, in which mutations were allowed to accumulate under extreme drift conditions in replicate, independently evolving lines initiated from a low-fitness mitochondrial electron transport chain (ETC) mutant, gas-1. In contrast to the results of typical MA experiments, gas-1 MA lines improved fitness slightly compared to their ancestor. Here, I find that the gas-1 MA lines demonstrate little increase in among-line variance and that the gas-1 MA nuclear mutations are more narrowly functionally defined than wildtype MA nuclear mutations. When combined with evidence for zygotic or post zygotic selection these data suggest that selection--both purifying and positive--can be an extremely powerful force even in conditions of extreme genetic drift. Furthermore, functional characterization of a four-mutation set isolated from one of the gas-1 MA lines on gas-1 and wildtype backgrounds shows fitness improvements on both backgrounds. This beneficial four-mutation set is associated with a decrease in steady-state endogenous ROS on the gas-1 background while exhibiting no effect on wildtype. I also find that steady-state ATP levels associated with the beneficial four-mutation set decreased compared to wildtype suggesting that fermentation may be metabolic strategy to cope with increase oxidative stress. These findings suggest that we can detect and characterize specific genetic changes that lead to a partial recovery of fitness and phenotype in a low-fitness ETC-deficient mutant strain of C. elegans. I extended my thesis to include analyses of fitness and phenotype of 24 replicate lineages of the gas-1 ETC mutant evolved in large population (n = 1000) sizes for 60 generations--conditions optimal for selection and fitness recovery (RC). I find that two distinct gas-1 RC fitness groups emerged: one group with significantly higher average fitness than the ancestor and containing two lines that exceeded wildtype fitness levels, and another group with more modest and non-significant fitness gains. Interestingly, many lines in the first group were observed to generate appreciable numbers of males during experimental evolution--consistent with evolution of outcrossing either accompanying or driving rapid fitness recovery. Bioinformatic functional analyses of the nuclear mutations that arose in the gas-1 RC lines show the availability of potentially more paths to fitness recovery for large populations than small ones. Combined, these data allow us to identify patterns in selection and drift in gas-1 recovery under MA and RC (recovery) conditions. My research advances our understanding of the genetic bases of adaptive evolution under extremely unfavorable population genetic conditions and how mitochondrial dysfunction affects evolutionary dynamics.


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