Journal of evolutionary biology

Genetic accommodation in the wild: evolution of gene expression plasticity during character displacement.

PMID 28612385


Ecological character displacement is considered crucial in promoting diversification, yet relatively little is known of its underlying mechanisms. We examined whether evolutionary shifts in gene expression plasticity ('genetic accommodation') mediate character displacement in spadefoot toads. Where Spea bombifrons and S. multiplicata occur separately in allopatry (the ancestral condition), each produces alternative, diet-induced, larval ecomorphs: omnivores, which eat detritus, and carnivores, which specialize on shrimp. By contrast, where these two species occur together in sympatry (the derived condition), selection to minimize competition for detritus has caused S. bombifrons to become nearly fixed for producing only carnivores, suggesting that character displacement might have arisen through an extreme form of genetic accommodation ('genetic assimilation') in which plasticity is lost. Here, we asked whether we could infer a signature of this process in regulatory changes of specific genes. In particular, we investigated whether genes that are normally expressed more highly in one morph ('biased' genes) have evolved reduced plasticity in expression levels among S. bombifrons from sympatry compared to S. bombifrons from allopatry. We reared individuals from sympatry vs. allopatry on detritus or shrimp and measured the reaction norms of nine biased genes. Although different genes displayed different patterns of gene regulatory evolution, the combined gene expression profiles revealed that sympatric individuals had indeed lost the diet-induced gene expression plasticity present in allopatric individuals. Our data therefore provide one of the few examples from natural populations in which genetic accommodation/assimilation can be traced to regulatory changes of specific genes. Such genetic accommodation might mediate character displacement in many systems.