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Convergence, constraint and the role of gene expression during adaptive radiation: floral anthocyanins in Aquilegia


  • Justen B. Whittall and Claudia Voelckel contributed equally to this work.

Scott A. Hodges, Fax: (805) 893 4724; E-mail: Present address: Section of Evolution and Ecology, University of California, Davis, One Shields Ave., Davis, CA 95616, USA.


Convergent phenotypes are testament to the role of natural selection in evolution. However, little is known about whether convergence in phenotype extends to convergence at the molecular level. We use the independent losses of floral anthocyanins in columbines (Aquilegia) to determine the degree of molecular convergence in gene expression across the anthocyanin biosynthetic pathway (ABP). Using a phylogeny of the North American Aquilegia clade, we inferred six independent losses of floral anthocyanins. Via semiquantitative reverse transcriptase–polymerase chain reaction (RT–PCR), we monitored developmental and tissue-specific variation in expression of the six major structural ABP loci in three Aquilegia species, two that produce anthocyanins (A+) and one that does not (A−). We then compared ABP expression in petals of old-bud and pre-anthesis flowers of 13 Aquilegia species, eight wild species and two horticultural lines representing seven independent A− lineages as well as three wild A+ species. We only found evidence of down-regulation of ABP loci in A− lineages and losses of expression were significantly more prevalent for genes late in the pathway. Independent contrast analysis indicates that changes in expression of dihydroflavonol reductase (DFR) and anthocyanidin synthase (ANS) are strongly phylogenetically correlated consistent with the multilocus targets of trans-regulatory elements in the ABP of other systems. Our findings strongly suggest that pleiotropy constrains the evolution of loss of floral anthocyanins to mutations affecting genes late in the ABP mostly through convergent changes in regulatory genes. These patterns support the hypothesis that rapid evolutionary change occurs largely through regulatory rather than structural mutations.