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Open Access Research article

Parallel reduction in expression, but no loss of functional constraint, in two opsin paralogs within cave populations of Gammarus minus (Crustacea: Amphipoda)

David B Carlini*, Suma Satish and Daniel W Fong

Author Affiliations

Department of Biology, American University, Washington, DC, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:89  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-89

Published: 23 April 2013

Abstract

Background

Gammarus minus, a freshwater amphipod living in the cave and surface streams in the eastern USA, is a premier candidate for studying the evolution of troglomorphic traits such as pigmentation loss, elongated appendages, and reduced eyes. In G. minus, multiple pairs of genetically related, physically proximate cave and surface populations exist which exhibit a high degree of intraspecific morphological divergence. The morphology, ecology, and genetic structure of these sister populations are well characterized, yet the genetic basis of their morphological divergence remains unknown.

Results

We used degenerate PCR primers designed to amplify opsin genes within the subphylum Crustacea and discovered two distinct opsin paralogs (average inter-paralog protein divergence ≈ 20%) in the genome of three independently derived pairs of G. minus cave and surface populations. Both opsin paralogs were found to be related to other crustacean middle wavelength sensitive opsins. Low levels of nucleotide sequence variation (< 1% within populations) were detected in both opsin genes, regardless of habitat, and dN/dS ratios did not indicate a relaxation of functional constraint in the cave populations with reduced or absent eyes. Maximum likelihood analyses using codon-based models also did not detect a relaxation of functional constraint in the cave lineages. We quantified expression level of both opsin genes and found that the expression of both paralogs was significantly reduced in all three cave populations relative to their sister surface populations.

Conclusions

The concordantly lowered expression level of both opsin genes in cave populations of G. minus compared to sister surface populations, combined with evidence for persistent purifying selection in the cave populations, is consistent with an unspecified pleiotropic function of opsin proteins. Our results indicate that phototransduction proteins such as opsins may have retained their function in cave-adapted organisms because they may play a pleiotropic role in other important processes that are unrelated to vision.