Spontaneous point mutations that occur more often when advantageous than when neutral.
B G Hall


Recent reports have called into question the widespread belief "that mutations arise continuously and without any consideration for their utility" (in the words of J. Cairns) and have suggested that some mutations (which Cairns called "directed" mutations) may occur as specific responses to environmental challenges, i.e., they may occur more often when advantageous than when neutral. In this paper it is shown that point mutations in the trp operon reverted to trp+ more frequently under conditions of prolonged tryptophan deprivation when the reversions were advantageous, than in the presence of tryptophan when the reversions were neutral. The overall mutation rate, as determined from the rates of mutation to valine resistance and to constitutive expression of the lac operon, did not increase during tryptophan starvation. The trp reversion rate did not increase when the cells were starved for cysteine for a similar period, indicating that the increased reversion rate was specific to conditions where the reversions were advantageous. Two artifactual explanations for the observations, delayed growth of some preexisting revertants and cryptic growth by some cells at the expense of dying cells within aged colonies, were tested and rejected as unlikely. The trp+ reversions that occurred while trp- colonies aged in the absence of tryptophan were shown to be time-dependent rather than replication-dependent, and it is suggested that they occur by mechanisms different from those that have been studied in growing cells. A heuristic model for the molecular basis of such mutations is proposed and evidence consistent with that model is discussed. It is suggested that the results in this and previous studies can be explained on the basis of underlying random mechanisms that act during prolonged periods of physiological stress, and that "directed" mutations are not necessarily the basis of those observations.