Stringency (low leak) is one of the most important specifications required for genetic circuits and induction systems, but it is challenging to evolve without sacrificing the maximum output level. This problem also comes from the absence of truly tunable negative selection methods. This paper reports that stringently switching variants can sometimes emerge with surprising frequency upon mutations. We randomly mutated the previously generated leaky variants of LuxR, the quorum-sensing transcription activator from Vibrio fischeri, to restore the stringency. We found as much as 10-20% of the entire population exhibited significantly improved signal-to-noise ratios compared with their parents. This indicated that these mutants arose by the loss of folding capability by accumulating destabilizing mutations, not by introducing rare adaptive mutations, thereby becoming AHL-dependent folders. Only four rounds of mutagenesis and ON-state selection resulted in the domination of the entire population by the improved variants with low leak, without direct selection pressure for stringency. With this surprising frequency, conversion into the "ligand-addicted folders" should be one of the prevailing modes of evolving stringency both in the laboratory and in nature, and the workflow described here provides a rapid and versatile method of improving the signal-to-noise ratio of various genetic switches.
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