Protein evolution has occurred by successive fixation of individual mutations. The probability of fixation depends on the fitness of the mutation, and the arising variant can be deleterious, neutral, or beneficial. Despite its relevance, only few studies have estimated the distribution of fitness effects caused by random single mutations on protein function. The human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) protease was chosen as a model protein to quantify protein's tolerability to random single mutations. After determining the enzymatic activity of 107 single random mutants, we found that 86% of single mutations were deleterious for the enzyme catalytic efficiency and 54% lethal. Only 2% of the mutations significantly increased the catalytic efficiency of the enzyme. These data demonstrate the vulnerability of HIV-1 protease to single random mutations. When a second random mutagenesis library was constructed from an HIV-1 protease carrying a highly deleterious single mutation (D30N), a higher proportion of mutations with neutral or beneficial effect were found, 26% and 9%, respectively. Importantly, antagonist epistasis was observed between deleterious mutations. In particular, the mutation N88D, lethal for the wild-type protease, restored the wild-type catalytic efficiency when combined with the highly deleterious mutation D30N. The low tolerability to single random substitutions shown here for the wild-type HIV-1 protease contrasts with its in vivo ability to generate an adaptive variation. Thus, the antagonist epistasis between deleterious or lethal mutations may be responsible for increasing the protein mutational robustness and evolvability. © The Author 2006. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution. All rights reserved.
- Protein evolution