Stochasticity in genetics and gene regulation

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2024 Apr 22;379(1900):20230476. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2023.0476. Epub 2024 Mar 4.


Development from fertilized egg to functioning multi-cellular organism requires precision. There is no precision, and often no survival, without plasticity. Plasticity is conferred partly by stochastic variation, present inherently in all biological systems. Gene expression levels fluctuate ubiquitously through transcription, alternative splicing, translation and turnover. Small differences in gene expression are exploited to trigger early differentiation, conferring distinct function on selected individual cells and setting in motion regulatory interactions. Non-selected cells then acquire new functions along the spatio-temporal developmental trajectory. The differentiation process has many stochastic components. Meiotic segregation, mitochondrial partitioning, X-inactivation and the dynamic DNA binding of transcription factor assemblies-all exhibit randomness. Non-random X-inactivation generally signals deleterious X-linked mutations. Correct neural wiring, such as retina to brain, arises through repeated confirmatory activity of connections made randomly. In immune system development, both B-cell antibody generation and the emergence of balanced T-cell categories begin through stochastic trial and error followed by functional selection. Aberrant selection processes lead to immune dysfunction. DNA sequence variants also arise through stochastic events: some involving environmental fluctuation (radiation or presence of pollutants), or genetic repair system malfunction. The phenotypic outcome of mutations is also fluid. Mutations may be advantageous in some circumstances, deleterious in others. This article is part of a discussion meeting issue ‘Causes and consequences of stochastic processes in development and disease’.

PMID:38432316 | DOI:10.1098/rstb.2023.0476