The complex molecular network that underlies physiological stress response is comprised of nodes (proteins, metabolites, mRNAs, etc.) whose connections span cells, tissues and organs. Variable nodes are points in the network upon which natural selection may act. Thus, identifying variable nodes will reveal how this molecular stress network may evolve among populations in different habitats and how it might impact life-history evolution. Here, we use physiological and genetic assays to test whether laboratory-born juveniles from natural populations of garter snakes (Thamnophis elegans), which have diverged in their life-history phenotypes, vary concomitantly at candidate nodes of the stress response network, (i) under unstressed conditions and (ii) in response to an induced stress. We found that two common measures of stress (plasma corticosterone and liver gene expression of heat shock proteins) increased under stress in both life-history phenotypes. In contrast, the phenotypes diverged at four nodes both under unstressed conditions and in response to stress: circulating levels of reactive oxygen species (superoxide, H2O2); liver gene expression of GPX1 and erythrocyte DNA damage. Additionally, allele frequencies for SOD2 diverge from neutral markers, suggesting diversifying selection on SOD2 alleles. This study supports the hypothesis that these life-history phenotypes have diverged at the molecular level in how they respond to stress, particularly in nodes regulating oxidative stress. Furthermore, the differences between the life-history phenotypes were more pronounced in females. We discuss the responses to stress in the context of the associated life-history phenotype and the evolutionary pressures thought to be responsible for divergence between the phenotypes.
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