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During the evolution of gene families, functional diversification of proteins often follows gene duplication. However, many gene families expand while preserving protein sequence. Why do cells maintain multiple copies of the same gene? Here we have addressed this question for an actin family with 17 genes encoding an identical protein. The genes have divergent flanking regions and are scattered throughout the genome. Surprisingly, almost the entire family showed similar developmental expression profiles, with their expression also strongly coupled in single cells. Using live cell imaging, we show that differences in gene expression were apparent over shorter timescales, with family members displaying different transcriptional bursting dynamics. Strong "bursty" behaviors contrasted steady, more continuous activity, indicating different regulatory inputs to individual actin genes. To determine the sources of these different dynamic behaviors, we reciprocally exchanged the upstream regulatory regions of gene family members. This revealed that dynamic transcriptional behavior is directly instructed by upstream sequence, rather than features specific to genomic context. A residual minor contribution of genomic context modulates the gene OFF rate. Our data suggest promoter diversification following gene duplication could expand the range of stimuli that regulate the expression of essential genes. These observations contextualize the significance of transcriptional bursting.

Original publication




Journal article


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Publication Date





8364 - 8369


Medical Research Council Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology, University College London, WC1E 6BT London, United Kingdom.


Cell Line, Dictyostelium, Actins, Transcription, Genetic, Gene Expression Regulation, Gene Duplication, Promoter Regions, Genetic