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Insights into the role of differential gene expression on the ecological adaptation of the snail Littorina saxatilis

Mónica Martínez-Fernández1, Louis Bernatchez2, Emilio Rolán-Alvarez1* and Humberto Quesada1

Author Affiliations

1 Departamento de Bioquímica, Genética e Inmunología. Facultad de Biología. Campus As Lagoas-Marcosende. Universidad de Vigo, 36310 Vigo. Spain

2 IBIS (Insitut de Biologie Intégrative et des Systèmes), Pavillon Charles-Eugène-Marchand. 1030, Avenue de la Médecine. Université Laval. Québec (Québec) G1V 0A6. Canada

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:356  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-356

Published: 18 November 2010



In the past 40 years, there has been increasing acceptance that variation in levels of gene expression represents a major source of evolutionary novelty. Gene expression divergence is therefore likely to be involved in the emergence of incipient species, namely, in a context of adaptive radiation. In this study, a genome-wide expression profiling approach (cDNA-AFLP), validated by quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) were used to get insights into the role of differential gene expression on the ecological adaptation of the marine snail Littorina saxatilis. This gastropod displays two sympatric ecotypes (RB and SU) which are becoming one of the best studied systems for ecological speciation.


Among the 99 transcripts shared between ecotypes, 12.12% showed significant differential expression. At least 4% of these transcripts still displayed significant differences after correction for multiple tests, highlighting that gene expression can differ considerably between subpopulations adapted to alternative habitats in the face of gene flow. One of the transcripts identified was Cytochrome c Oxidase subunit I (COI). In addition, 6 possible reference genes were validated to normalize and confirm this result using qPCR. α-Tubulin and histone H3.3 showed the more stable expression levels, being therefore chosen as the best option for normalization. The qPCR analysis confirmed a higher COI expression in SU individuals.


At least 4% of the transcriptome studied is being differentially expressed between ecotypes living in alternative habitats, even when gene flow is still substantial between ecotypes. We could identify a candidate transcript of such ecotype differentiation: Cytochrome c Oxidase Subunit I (COI), a mitochondrial gene involved in energy metabolism. Quantitative PCR was used to confirm the differences found in COI and its over-expression in the SU ecotype. Interestingly, COI is involved in the oxidative phosphorylation, suggesting an enhanced mitochondrial gene expression (or increased number of mitochondria) to improve energy supply in the ecotype subjected to the strongest wave action.