Shaping development through mechanical strain: the transcriptional basis of diet-induced phenotypic plasticity in a cichlid fish


Correspondence: Axel Meyer, Fax: +49 (0) 7531 88 3018; E-mail:


Adaptive phenotypic plasticity, the ability of an organism to change its phenotype to match local environments, is increasingly recognized for its contribution to evolution. However, few empirical studies have explored the molecular basis of plastic traits. The East African cichlid fish Astatoreochromis alluaudi displays adaptive phenotypic plasticity in its pharyngeal jaw apparatus, a structure that is widely seen as an evolutionary key innovation that has contributed to the remarkable diversity of cichlid fishes. It has previously been shown that in response to different diets, the pharyngeal jaws change their size, shape and dentition: hard diets induce an adaptive robust molariform tooth phenotype with short jaws and strong internal bone structures, while soft diets induce a gracile papilliform tooth phenotype with elongated jaws and slender internal bone structures. To gain insight into the molecular underpinnings of these adaptations and enable future investigations of the role that phenotypic plasticity plays during the formation of adaptive radiations, the transcriptomes of the two divergent jaw phenotypes were examined. Our study identified a total of 187 genes whose expression differs in response to hard and soft diets, including immediate early genes, extracellular matrix genes and inflammatory factors. Transcriptome results are interpreted in light of expression of candidate genes—markers for tooth size and shape, bone cells and mechanically sensitive pathways. This study opens up new avenues of research at new levels of biological organization into the roles of phenotypic plasticity during speciation and radiation of cichlid fishes.