In the presence of environmental change, natural selection can shape the transcriptome. Under a scenario of environmental change, genotypes that are better able to modulate gene expression to maximize fitness will tend to be favoured. Therefore, it is important to examine gene expression at the population level to distinguish random or neutral gene expression variation from the pattern produced by natural selection. This study investigates the natural variation in transcriptional response to a cactus host shift utilizing the mainland Sonora population of Drosophila mojavensis. Drosophila mojavensis is a cactophilic species composed of four cactus host populations endemic to the deserts of North America. Overall, the change in cactus host was associated with a significant reduction in larval viability as well as the differential expression of 21% of the genome (3109 genes). Among the genes identified were a set of genes previously known to be involved in xenobiotic metabolism, as well as genes involved in cellular energy production, oxidoreductase/carbohydrate metabolism, structural components and mRNA binding. Interestingly, of the 3109 genes whose expression was affected by host use, there was a significant overrepresentation of genes that lacked an orthologous call to the D. melanogaster genome, suggesting the possibility of an accelerated rate of evolution in these genes. Of the genes with a significant cactus effect, the majority, 2264 genes, did not exhibit a significant cactus-by-line interaction. This population-level approach facilitated the identification of genes involved in past cactus host shifts.
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