Hitching a lift on the road to speciation


Roger Butlin, Fax: +44 114 2220002; E-mail: r.k.butlin@sheffield.ac.uk


Understanding how speciation can take place in the presence of homogenizing gene flow remains a major challenge in evolutionary biology. In the early stages of ecological speciation, reproductive isolation between populations occupying different habitats is expected to be concentrated around genes for local adaptation. These genomic regions will show high divergence while gene exchange in other regions of the genome should continue relatively unimpaired, resulting in low levels of differentiation. The problem is to explain how speciation progresses from this point towards complete reproductive isolation, allowing genome-wide divergence. A new study by Via and West (2008) on speciation between host races of the pea aphid, Acyrthosiphon pisum, introduces the mechanism of ‘divergence hitchhiking’ which can generate large ‘islands of differentiation’ and facilitate the build-up of linkage disequilibrium, favouring increased reproductive isolation. This idea potentially removes a major stumbling block to speciation under continuous gene flow.