Abstract

The mutational process varies at many levels, from within genomes to among taxa. Many mechanisms have been linked to variation in mutation, but understanding of the evolution of the mutational process is rudimentary. Physiological condition is often implicated as a source of variation in microbial mutation rate and may contribute to mutation rate variation in multicellular organisms.Deleterious mutations are an ubiquitous source of variation in condition. We test the hypothesis that the mutational process depends on the underlying mutation load in two groups of Caenorhabditis elegans mutation accumulation (MA) lines that differ in their starting mutation loads. “First-order MA” (O1MA) lines maintained under minimal selection for ∼250 generations were divided into high-fitness and low-fitness groups and sets of “second-order MA” (O2MA) lines derived from each O1MA line were maintained for ∼150 additional generations. Genomes of 48 O2MA lines and their progenitors were sequenced. There is significant variation among O2MA lines in base-substitution rate (µbs), but no effect of initial fitness; the indel rate is greater in high-fitness O2MA lines. Overall, µbs is positively correlated with recombination and proximity to short tandem repeats and negatively correlated with 10 bp and 1 kb GC content. However, probability of mutation is sufficiently predicted by the three-nucleotide motif alone. Approximately 90% of the variance in standing nucleotide variation is explained by mutability. Total mutation rate increased in the O2MA lines, as predicted by the “drift barrier” model of mutation rate evolution. These data, combined with experimental estimates of fitness, suggest that epistasis is synergistic.

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