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Mol Biol Evol. 2013 Oct;30(10):2268-85. doi: 10.1093/molbev/mst124. Epub 2013 Jul 24.

Expression and sequence evolution of aromatase cyp19a1 and other sexual development genes in East African cichlid fishes.

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  • 1Zoological Institute, University of Basel, Basel, Switzerland.


Sex determination mechanisms are highly variable across teleost fishes and sexual development is often plastic. Nevertheless, downstream factors establishing the two sexes are presumably conserved. Here, we study sequence evolution and gene expression of core genes of sexual development in a prime model system in evolutionary biology, the East African cichlid fishes. Using the available five cichlid genomes, we test for signs of positive selection in 28 genes including duplicates from the teleost whole-genome duplication, and examine the expression of these candidate genes in three cichlid species. We then focus on a particularly striking case, the A- and B-copies of the aromatase cyp19a1, and detect different evolutionary trajectories: cyp19a1A evolved under strong positive selection, whereas cyp19a1B remained conserved at the protein level, yet is subject to regulatory changes at its transcription start sites. Importantly, we find shifts in gene expression in both copies. Cyp19a1 is considered the most conserved ovary-factor in vertebrates, and in all teleosts investigated so far, cyp19a1A and cyp19a1B are expressed in ovaries and the brain, respectively. This is not the case in cichlids, where we find new expression patterns in two derived lineages: the A-copy gained a novel testis-function in the Ectodine lineage, whereas the B-copy is overexpressed in the testis of the speciest-richest cichlid group, the Haplochromini. This suggests that even key factors of sexual development, including the sex steroid pathway, are not conserved in fish, supporting the idea that flexibility in sexual determination and differentiation may be a driving force of speciation.


adaptive evolution; aromatase; cichlid fishes; developmental system drift; gene duplication; sex determination

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