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Bioessays. 2004 Feb;26(2):116-9.

Deciphering the swordtail's tale: a molecular and evolutionary quest.

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BioEssays Editorial Office, 10/11 Tredgold Lane, Napier Street, Cambridge CB1 1HN, UK.


The power of sexual selection to influence the evolution of morphological traits was first proposed more than 130 years ago by Darwin. Though long a controversial idea, it has been documented in recent decades for a host of animal species. Yet few of the established sexually selected features have been explored at the level of their genetic or molecular foundations. In a recent report, Zauner et al.1 describe some of the molecular features associated with one of the best characterized of sexually selected traits, the male-specific tail "sword" seen in certain species of the fish genus Xiphophorus. Zauner et al. find that the msxC gene, a gene previously implicated in fin development from work in zebrafish, is dramatically and specifically upregulated in the development of the ventral caudal fin rays, which give rise to the sword, in males. The results provide the first molecular insight into the development of this sexually selected trait while prompting new questions about the structure of the entire genetic network that underlies this trait. To fully understand the molecular-genetic and evolutionary history of this network, however, it will be essential to determine whether sword-development is a basal or derived trait in Xiphophorus.

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