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PLoS Biol. Aug 2009; 7(8): e1000168.
Published online Aug 4, 2009. doi:  10.1371/journal.pbio.1000168
PMCID: PMC2711336

Rapid Evolution of Sex Pheromone-Producing Enzyme Expression in Drosophila

Michael B. Eisen, Academic Editor

Abstract

A wide range of organisms use sex pheromones to communicate with each other and to identify appropriate mating partners. While the evolution of chemical communication has been suggested to cause sexual isolation and speciation, the mechanisms that govern evolutionary transitions in sex pheromone production are poorly understood. Here, we decipher the molecular mechanisms underlying the rapid evolution in the expression of a gene involved in sex pheromone production in Drosophilid flies. Long-chain cuticular hydrocarbons (e.g., dienes) are produced female-specifically, notably via the activity of the desaturase DESAT-F, and are potent pheromones for male courtship behavior in Drosophila melanogaster. We show that across the genus Drosophila, the expression of this enzyme is correlated with long-chain diene production and has undergone an extraordinary number of evolutionary transitions, including six independent gene inactivations, three losses of expression without gene loss, and two transitions in sex-specificity. Furthermore, we show that evolutionary transitions from monomorphism to dimorphism (and its reversion) in desatF expression involved the gain (and the inactivation) of a binding-site for the sex-determination transcription factor, DOUBLESEX. In addition, we documented a surprising example of the gain of particular cis-regulatory motifs of the desatF locus via a set of small deletions. Together, our results suggest that frequent changes in the expression of pheromone-producing enzymes underlie evolutionary transitions in chemical communication, and reflect changing regimes of sexual selection, which may have contributed to speciation among Drosophila.

Author Summary

Mate selection is a complex process involving communication between potential partners on many levels, such as visual, aural, and olfactory cues. Many animals use chemical signals in the form of pheromones to communicate and correctly recognize individuals of the appropriate species and sex during reproduction. Evolutionary changes in the production of these chemicals have been suggested to contribute to speciation. Yet, the molecular mechanisms governing these transitions have seldom been addressed. Here, we show that expression of the gene desatF, which encodes an enzyme involved in the production of the Drosophila pheromones known as dienes, is highly variable and rapidly evolving across Drosophila species. Changes in desatF gene expression correlate with changes in sex- and species-specific production of dienes. Further, these changes in diene production can be explained by simple modifications in the regulatory regions of the desatF gene, providing a molecular level understanding of the evolution of pheromone production in Drosophila.


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