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Keywords:

  • development and evolution;
  • east African cichlids;
  • phenotypic plasticity;
  • transcriptomics

The East African cichlid fishes provide text book examples of adaptive radiation. Diversification and speciation of cichlids associate with variation in diet and trophic morphologies among other ecological, behavioural and morphological phenotypes (Kocher 2004). Numerous case studies in cichlids reveal a role of developmental plasticity in generating jaw ecomorphs in response to variation in feeding ecology that can facilitate niche exploitation and subsequent diversification (e.g. Meyer 1987). Specifically, genetic divergence among such environmentally induced morphs can occur via reproductive isolation due to divergence in habitat and resource use in combination with genetic assimilation of environmentally induced phenotypes (West-Eberhard 2003; Pfennig et al. 2010). Expansion of this conceptual model has been hampered in part by the limited knowledge of the molecular mechanisms of plasticity in nonstandard model systems and the associated lack of evidence linking the molecular mechanisms of plasticity to those that generate phenotypic divergence among populations and taxa. In this issue of Molecular Ecology, Gunter et al. (2013) identify the transcriptional mechanisms of diet-induced lower pharyngeal jaw (LPJ) plasticity in the cichlid fish Astatoreochromis alluaudi. Natural populations of A. alluaudi exhibit variation in jaw morphology in relation to diet hardness. Among the plastic responses to diet are adjustments to the LPJ ranging from a robust molariform morph in response to a hard diet to a more gracile papilliform morph in response to a soft diet (Fig. 1). Gunter and colleagues induced developmental plasticity of the A. alluaudi jaw using diet manipulations and compared LPJ transcriptomic profiles of the resulting morphs. In this foundational work, the authors identify 187 differentially expressed genes that underlie the development and maintenance of diet-induced LPJ morphologies. This list includes a wide range of genes spanning from broad-acting transcription factors to signalling molecules and structural genes. Here, I examine the ontogeny of the molecular response to mechanical strain imposed by diet hardness and discuss the role of the stages of this response in the evolution of plasticity and plasticity-driven diversification.

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Figure 1. Phenotypic plasticity in the lower pharyngeal jaws of the cichlid fish Astatoreochromis alluaudi. A mechanically stimulating diet such as hard-shelled snails induces a molariform phenotype with larger molar-like teeth set in a larger, denser jaw, in comparison with the papilliform phenotype, which develops in response to a soft, nutritionally equivalent diet of pulverized snails. Photographs were kindly provided by Helen Gunter.

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