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Voigt, Susanne (2015): Molecular evolution in Drosophila melanogaster: genetic aspects of thermal adaptation. Dissertation, LMU München: Faculty of Biology



The genetic basis underlying adaptive evolution is still largely unknown. Adaptive evolution is facilitated by natural selection that acts on the genetic variation present in a population. Favoring some genetic variants over others, natural selection eventually produces adaptations that allow populations to survive in changing or new environments. Populations colonizing new habitats that differ from their original habitat are often confronted with a multitude of novel ecological constraints to which they need to adapt. A well-annotated genome and a diverse genetic toolkit make the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster an ideal model system for studying the genetics underlying adaptation. As a cosmopolitan species, D. melanogaster has adapted to a wide range of thermal environments. Despite having a tropical origin in southern-central Africa, it has successfully settled in temperate environments around the world. Thermal adaptations that have helped to deal with the greater range and variability in temperature as well as low-temperature extremes have been required to prosper in temperate environments. Chromatin-based gene regulation is known to be disrupted by varying temperatures. Variation in the temperature, at which flies live, result in varying expression levels of Polycomb group (PcG) regulated genes with higher expression at lower temperatures. Chapter 1 and 2 of this thesis aim to answer the question whether this thermosensitivity of PcG regulation has been detrimental for colonizing temperate environments and thus needed to be buffered by natural selection. Thermosensitivity of PcG regulation was observed in different natural populations of D. melanogaster. A lower degree of thermosensitive expression was consistently found for populations from temperate climates when compared to those from the tropics. In Chapter 1, evidence is presented for positive selection acting on the polyhomeotic (ph) gene region to reduce thermosensitivity of PcG regulation in temperate populations from Europe. The targets of selection appear to be single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in a relatively small cis-regulatory region between the two PcG target genes polyhomeotic proximal (ph-p) and CG3835 that are highly differentiated between European and African populations. Using reporter gene assays, it was demonstrated that these SNPs influence gene expression and that the European alleles confer reduced thermosensitivity of expression in contrast to the African alleles. In Chapter 2, thermosensitivity of another PcG target gene, vestigial (vg), was investigated in six natural populations including four temperate populations from high-altitude Africa and central to high-latitude Europe, and two tropical populations from the ancestral species range. All four temperate populations exhibited a lower degree of thermosensitive expression than the two tropical populations. The underlying mechanisms of increased buffering, however, seem to differ between these temperate populations. Thermal adaptation to temperate environments also includes dealing with low-temperature extremes. Severe cold stress is a main limiting factor imposed on D. melanogaster by temperate climates. Increased cold tolerance in temperate populations is thought to have evolved by natural selection. Cold tolerance is a quantitative trait that appears to be highly polygenic and has been mapped to different quantitative trait loci (QTL) in the genome. In Chapter 3, such a QTL region was fine-mapped to localize causal genes for increased cold tolerance in temperate flies. As a result, brinker (brk) was identified as a new candidate gene putatively involved in cold stress adaptation.