BMC evolutionary biology

Genome differentiation in a species pair of coregonine fishes: an extremely rapid speciation driven by stress-activated retrotransposons mediating extensive ribosomal DNA multiplications.

PMID 23410024


Sympatric species pairs are particularly common in freshwater fishes associated with postglacial lakes in northern temperate environments. The nature of divergences between co-occurring sympatric species, factors contributing to reproductive isolation and modes of genome evolution is a much debated topic in evolutionary biology addressed by various experimental tools. To the best of our knowledge, nobody approached this field using molecular cytogenetics. We examined chromosomes and genomes of one postglacial species pair, sympatric European winter-spawning Coregonus albula and the local endemic dwarf-sized spring-spawning C. fontanae, both originating in Lake Stechlin. We have employed molecular cytogenetic tools to identify the genomic differences between the two species of the sympatric pair on the sub-chromosomal level of resolution. Fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) experiments consistently revealed a distinct variation in the copy number of loci of the major ribosomal DNA (the 45S unit) between C. albula and C. fontanae genomes. In C. fontanae, up to 40 chromosomes were identified to bear a part of the major ribosomal DNA, while in C. albula only 8-10 chromosomes possessed these genes. To determine mechanisms how such extensive genome alternation might have arisen, a PCR screening for retrotransposons from genomic DNA of both species was performed. The amplified retrotransposon Rex1 was used as a probe for FISH mapping onto chromosomes of both species. These experiments showed a clear co-localization of the ribosomal DNA and the retrotransposon Rex1 in a pericentromeric region of one or two acrocentric chromosomes in both species. We demonstrated genomic consequences of a rapid ecological speciation on the level undetectable by neither sequence nor karyotype analysis. We provide indirect evidence that ribosomal DNA probably utilized the spreading mechanism of retrotransposons subsequently affecting recombination rates in both genomes, thus, leading to a rapid genome divergence. We attribute these extensive genome re-arrangements associated with speciation event to stress-induced retrotransposons (re)activation. Such causal interplay between genome differentiation, retrotransposons (re)activation and environmental conditions may become a topic to be explored in a broader genomic context in future evolutionary studies.