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Open Access Research article

Divergence in gene regulation at young life history stages of whitefish (Coregonus sp.) and the emergence of genomic isolation

Arne W Nolte*, Sébastien Renaut and Louis Bernatchez

Author Affiliations

Département de Biologie, Pavillon Charles-Eugène-Marchand, Université Laval, Ste-Foy, Québec, G1V 0A6, Canada

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:59  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-59

Published: 16 March 2009

Abstract

Background

The evolution of barriers to reproduction is of key interest to understand speciation. However, there may be a current bias towards studying intrinsic postzygotic isolation in old species pairs as compared to the emergence of barriers to gene flow through adaptive divergence. This study evaluates the relative importance of both processes in the evolution of genomic isolation in incipient species of whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis) for which preliminary data suggest that postzygotic isolation emerges with intrinsic factors acting at embryo stages but also due to extrinsic factors during adult life.

Results

Gene expression data were screened using cDNA microarrays to identify regulatory changes at embryo and juvenile stages that provide evidence for genomic divergence at the underlying genetic factors. A comparison of different life history stages shows that 16-week old juvenile fish have 14 times more genes displaying significant regulatory divergence than embryos. Furthermore, regulatory changes in juvenile fish match patterns in adult fish suggesting that gene expression divergence is established early in juvenile fish and persists throughout the adult phase. Comparative analyses with results from previous studies on dwarf-normal species pairs show that at least 26 genetic factors identified in juvenile fish are candidate traits for adaptive divergence in adult fish. Eight of these show parallel directions of gene expression divergence independent of tissue type or age of the fish. The latter are associated with energy metabolism, a complex trait known to drive adaptive divergence in dwarf and normal whitefish.

Conclusion

Although experimental evidence suggests the existence of genetic factors that cause intrinsic postzygotic isolation acting in embryos, the analysis presented here provided few candidate genes in embryos, which also corroborate previous studies showing a lack of ecological divergence between sympatric dwarf and normal whitefish at the larval stage. In contrast, gene expression divergence in juveniles can be linked to adaptive traits and seems to be driven by positive selection. The results support the idea that adaptive differentiation may be more important in explaining the emergence of barriers to gene flow in an early phase of speciation by providing a broad genomic basis for extrinsic postzygotic isolation rather than intrinsic barriers.