Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Evolution of cichlid vision via trans-regulatory divergence

Kelly E O’Quin*, Jane E Schulte, Zil Patel, Nadia Kahn, Zan Naseer, Helena Wang, Matthew A Conte and Karen L Carleton

Author Affiliations

Department of Biology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, 20742, USA

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012, 12:251  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-251

Published: 26 December 2012

Abstract

Background

Phenotypic evolution may occur through mutations that affect either the structure or expression of protein-coding genes. Although the evolution of color vision has historically been attributed to structural mutations within the opsin genes, recent research has shown that opsin regulatory mutations can also tune photoreceptor sensitivity and color vision. Visual sensitivity in African cichlid fishes varies as a result of the differential expression of seven opsin genes. We crossed cichlid species that express different opsin gene sets and scanned their genome for expression Quantitative Trait Loci (eQTL) responsible for these differences. Our results shed light on the role that different structural, cis-, and trans-regulatory mutations play in the evolution of color vision.

Results

We identified 11 eQTL that contribute to the divergent expression of five opsin genes. On three linkage groups, several eQTL formed regulatory “hotspots” associated with the expression of multiple opsins. Importantly, however, the majority of the eQTL we identified (8/11 or 73%) occur on linkage groups located trans to the opsin genes, suggesting that cichlid color vision has evolved primarily via trans-regulatory divergence. By modeling the impact of just two of these trans-regulatory eQTL, we show that opsin regulatory mutations can alter cichlid photoreceptor sensitivity and color vision at least as much as opsin structural mutations can.

Conclusions

Combined with previous work, we demonstrate that the evolution of cichlid color vision results from the interplay of structural, cis-, and especially trans-regulatory loci. Although there are numerous examples of structural and cis-regulatory mutations that contribute to phenotypic evolution, our results suggest that trans-regulatory mutations could contribute to phenotypic divergence more commonly than previously expected, especially in systems like color vision, where compensatory changes in the expression of multiple genes are required in order to produce functional phenotypes.