Male sterility at extreme temperatures: a significant but neglected phenomenon for understanding Drosophila climatic adaptations


Dr. J. R. David, CNRS, Laboratoire Populations, Génétique et Evolution, 91198 Gif-sur-Yvette Cedex, France.
Tel.: +33-1-69 82 37 15; fax: +33-1-69 07 04 21;


The thermal range for viability is quite variable among Drosophila species and it has long been known that these variations are correlated with geographic distribution: temperate species are on average more cold tolerant but more heat sensitive than tropical species. At both ends of their viability range, sterile males have been observed in all species investigated so far. This symmetrical phenomenon restricts the temperature limits within which permanent cultures can be kept in the laboratory. Thermal heat sterility thresholds are very variable across species from 23 °C in heat sensitive species up to 31 °C in heat tolerant species. In Drosophila melanogaster, genetic variations are observed among geographic populations. Tropical populations are more tolerant to heat induced sterility and recover more rapidly than temperate ones. A genetic analysis revealed that about 50% of the difference observed between natural populations was due to the Y chromosome. Natural populations have not reached a selection limit, however: thermal tolerance was still increased by keeping strains at a high temperature, close to the sterility threshold. On the low temperature side, a symmetrical reverse phenomenon seems to exist: temperate populations are more tolerant to cold than tropical ones. Compared to Mammals, drosophilids exhibit two major differences: first, male sterility occurs not only at high temperature, but also at a low temperature; second, sterility thresholds are not evolutionarily constrained, but highly variable. Altogether, significant and sometimes major genetic variations have been observed between species, between geographic races of the same species, and even between strains kept in the laboratory under different thermal regimes. In each case, it is easily argued that the observed variations correspond to adaptations to climatic conditions, and that male sterility is a significant component of fitness and a target of natural selection.