Journal Article

The evolution of gene expression underlying vision loss in cave animals

Stern, D.B and Crandall, K.A.

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Molecular Biology and Evolution
Dissecting the evolutionary genetic processes underlying eye reduction and vision loss in obligate cave-dwelling organisms has been a long-standing challenge in evolutionary biology. In dependent vision loss events in related subterranean organisms can provide critical insight into these processes as well as into the nature of convergent loss of complex traits. Advances in evolutionary developmental biology have illuminated the significant role of heritable gene expression variation in the evolution of new forms. Here we analyze gene expression variation in adult eye tissue across the freshwater crayfish, representing four independent vision-loss events in caves. Species and individual expression patterns cluster by eye function rather than phylogeny, suggesting convergence in transcriptome evolution in independently blind animals. However, this clustering is not greater than what is observed in surface species with conserved eye function after accounting for phylogenetic expectations. Modeling expression evolution suggests that there is a common increase in evolutionary rates in the blind lineages, consistent with a relaxation of selective constraint maintaining optimal expression levels. This is evidence for a repeated loss of expression constraint in the transcriptomes of blind animals and that convergence occurs via a similar trajectory through genetic drift.
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