Public release date: 4-Dec-2003
Contact: John Easton
University of Chicago Medical Center
Changing one gene launches new fly species
Study also ties sex appeal to cold tolerance
In what has been described as the "perfect experiment," evolutionary biologists
at the University of Chicago replaced a single gene in fruit flies and
discovered a mechanism by which two different "races" begin to become different
species, with one group adapted to life in the tropics and the other suited to
cooler climates. The tropical group was more tolerant of starvation but less
tolerant of cold. The temperate group was less able to resist starvation but
better adapted to cool weather.
The altered gene also changed the flies' pheromones, chemical signals that
influence mating behavior. As a result, the researchers show in the Dec. 5
issue of Science, the two groups of flies are not only fit for different
environments but may also be on their way to sexual isolation, a crucial divide
in the emergence of a new species.
"This study directly connects genetics with evolution," said Chung-I Wu, Ph.D.,
professor and chairman of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago
and director of the study. "For the first time, we were able to demonstrate the
vast importance in an evolutionary context of a small genetic change that has
already occurred in nature."
"We had the luxury," added co-author Tony Greenberg, Ph.D., a postdoctoral
student in Wu's laboratory, "of watching the essential event in Darwinian
evolution, the first step in the origin of a new species. We were quite
impressed, that this simple alteration played such a dramatic role, both
adapting flies to a new environment and changing their sex appeal. Once two
groups become sexually isolated, there's no turning back."
The scientists used a new technique to knock out one gene from fruit flies and
then replace it with one of two slightly different versions of the same gene.
They focused on a gene called desaturase2 that plays a role in fat metabolism.
Flies from Africa and the Caribbean, where there is tremendous competition for
food but cold temperatures are not a problem, have one version of ds2. Flies
from cooler climates, where there is less competition for food but greater
temperature variation, have a smaller, inactive version of ds2.
The same gene plays a role in the production of cuticular hydrocarbons -- waxy,
aromatic compounds that coat the abdomen of female flies. A male fly, in a
romantic mood, strokes the female's abdomen with his feet, which have sensors
that recognize specific hydrocarbons, like a perfume.
In a previous report, Wu's laboratory found most males with the temperate
version of the ds2 gene preferred females with the same gene; tropical males
preferred tropical females.
"Developing increased cold tolerance was an important step for flies that
migrated out of Africa to Europe and Asia," Wu said. The change in pheromones,
which altered patterns of sexual attraction, "was a by-product of adaptation to
Fruit flies have a migratory history similar to humans. They originated in
Africa, spread to Europe and Asia and went on to populate the world. As with
humans, there is greater diversity within African flies than between flies from
Africa and other continents.
Although fruit flies have been a favorite model for the study of genetics since
the early 20th century, recognition of consistent differences between tropical
and temperate flies came only in 1995. The discovery, however, "has allowed a
lot of analysis of the evolution of adaptive traits," Wu said.
"But this was the first time we have been able to study the process from the
very beginning," he added, "to watch the first steps as one species begins to
split into two, then seals the bargain by increasing sexual isolation. This is
the essence of biodiversity."
Additional authors include Jennifer Moran from the Wu lab and Jerry Coyne of
the University of Chicago. The National Institutes of Health and the National
Science Foundation funded the study.