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Genetics of gene expression responses to temperature stress in a sea urchin gene network


Daniel Runcie, Fax: +919 660 7293; E-mail:


Stress responses play an important role in shaping species distributions and robustness to climate change. We investigated how stress responses alter the contribution of additive genetic variation to gene expression during development of the purple sea urchin, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, under increased temperatures that model realistic climate change scenarios. We first measured gene expression responses in the embryos by RNA-seq to characterize molecular signatures of mild, chronic temperature stress in an unbiased manner. We found that an increase from 12 to 18 °C caused widespread alterations in gene expression including in genes involved in protein folding, RNA processing and development. To understand the quantitative genetic architecture of this response, we then focused on a well-characterized gene network involved in endomesoderm and ectoderm specification. Using a breeding design with wild-caught individuals, we measured genetic and gene–environment interaction effects on 72 genes within this network. We found genetic or maternal effects in 33 of these genes and that the genetic effects were correlated in the network. Fourteen network genes also responded to higher temperatures, but we found no significant genotype–environment interactions in any of the genes. This absence may be owing to an effective buffering of the temperature perturbations within the network. In support of this hypothesis, perturbations to regulatory genes did not affect the expression of the genes that they regulate. Together, these results provide novel insights into the relationship between environmental change and developmental evolution and suggest that climate change may not expose large amounts of cryptic genetic variation to selection in this species.