Although much is known about the ecological significance of metamorphosis and metamorphic timing, few studies have examined the underlying genetic architecture of these traits, and no study has attempted to associate phenotypic variation to molecular variation in specific genes. Here we report on a candidate gene approach (CGA) to test specific loci for a statistical contribution to variation in metamorphic timing. Three segregating populations (SP1, SP2 and SP3) were constructed utilizing three species of paedomorphic Mexican ambystomatid salamander, including the axolotl, Ambystoma mexicanum. We used these replicated species to test the hypothesis that inheritance of alternate genotypes at two thyroid hormone receptor loci (TRα, TRβ) affects metamorphic timing in ambystomatid salamanders. A significant TRα*SP effect indicated that variation in metamorphic timing may be influenced by TRα genotype, however, the effect was not a simple one, as both the magnitude and direction of the phenotypic effect depended upon the genetic background. These are the first data to implicate a specific gene in contributing to variation in metamorphic timing. In general, candidate gene approaches can be extended to any number of loci and to any organism where simple genetic crosses can be performed to create segregating populations. The approach is thus of particular value in ecological studies where target genes have been identified but the study organism is not one of the few well-characterized model systems that dominate genetic research.
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