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Original Research ARTICLE

Front. Ecol. Evol., 26 March 2020 |

Gene Regulatory Network Homoplasy Underlies Recurrent Sexually Dimorphic Fruit Fly Pigmentation

Jesse T. Hughes1, Melissa E. Williams1, Rachel Johnson1, Sumant Grover1, Mark Rebeiz2* and Thomas M. Williams1,3*

  1. 1Department of Biology, University of Dayton, Dayton, OH, United States
  2. 2Department of Biological Sciences, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, United States
  3. 3The Integrative Science and Engineering Center, University of Dayton, Dayton, OH, United States

Traits that appear discontinuously along phylogenies may be explained by independent origins (homoplasy) or repeated loss (homology). While discriminating between these models is difficult, the dissection of gene regulatory networks (GRNs) which drive the development of such repeatedly occurring traits can offer a mechanistic window on this fundamental problem. The GRN responsible for the male-specific pattern of Drosophila (D.) melanogaster melanic tergite pigmentation has received considerable attention. In this system, a metabolic pathway of pigmentation enzyme genes is expressed in spatial and sex-specific (i.e., dimorphic) patterns. The dimorphic expression of several genes is regulated by the Bab transcription factors, which suppress pigmentation enzyme expression in females, by virtue of their high expression in this sex. Here, we analyzed the phylogenetic distribution of species with male-specific pigmentation and show that this dimorphism is phylogenetically widespread among fruit flies. The analysis of pigmentation enzyme gene expression in distantly related dimorphic and monomorphic species shows that dimorphism is driven by the similar deployment of a conserved metabolic pathway. However, sexually dimorphic Bab expression was found only in D. melanogaster and its close relatives. These results suggest that dimorphism evolved by parallel deployment of differentiation genes, but was derived through distinct architectures at the level of regulatory genes. This work demonstrates the interplay of constraint and flexibility within evolving GRNs, findings that may foretell the mechanisms of homoplasy more broadly.

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