Epigenetically inherited aggregates of the yeast prion [PSI+] cause genomewide readthrough translation that sometimes increases evolvability in certain harsh environments. The effects of natural selection on modifiers of [PSI+] appearance have been the subject of much debate. It seems likely that [PSI+] would be at least mildly deleterious in most environments, but this may be counteracted by its evolvability properties on rare occasions. Indirect selection on modifiers of [PSI+] is predicted to depend primarily on the spontaneous [PSI+] appearance rate, but this critical parameter has not previously been adequately measured. Here we measure this epimutation rate accurately and precisely as 5.8 × 10-7 per generation, using a fluctuation test. We also determine that genetic "mimics" of [PSI1] account for up to 80% of all phenotypes involving general nonsense suppression. Using previously developed mathematical models, we can now infer that even in the absence of opportunities for adaptation, modifiers of [PSI+] are only weakly deleterious relative to genetic drift. If we assume that the spontaneous [PSI+] appearance rate is at its evolutionary optimum, then opportunities for adaptation are inferred to be rare, such that the [PSI+] system is favored only very weakly overall. But when we account for the observed increase in the [PSI+] appearance rate in response to stress, we infer much higher overall selection in favor of [PSI+] modifiers, suggesting that [PSI+]-forming ability may be a consequence of selection for evolvability.
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