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Cell. 2008 Mar 7;132(5):783-93. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2008.01.014.

The evolution of gene regulation underlies a morphological difference between two Drosophila sister species.

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Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Laboratory of Molecular Biology, University of Wisconsin, 1525 Linden Drive, Madison, WI 53706, USA.


Understanding the mechanisms underlying the morphological divergence of species is one of the central goals of evolutionary biology. Here, we analyze the genetic and molecular bases of the divergence of body pigmentation patterns between Drosophila yakuba and its sister species Drosophila santomea. We found that loss of pigmentation in D. santomea involved the selective loss of expression of the tan and yellow pigmentation genes. We demonstrate that tan gene expression was eliminated through the mutational inactivation of one specific tan cis-regulatory element (CRE) whereas the Tan protein sequence remained unchanged. Surprisingly, we identify three independent loss-of-function alleles of the tan CRE in the young D. santomea lineage. We submit that there is sufficient empirical evidence to support the general prediction that functional evolutionary changes at pleiotropic loci will most often involve mutations in their discrete, modular cis-regulatory elements.

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