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Proc Biol Sci. 2010 Nov 7;277(1698):3317-25. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2010.0748. Epub 2010 Jun 3.

Genetic architecture of a feeding adaptation: garter snake (Thamnophis) resistance to tetrodotoxin bearing prey.

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Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, University of Nevada, Reno, NV 89557, USA.


Detailing the genetic basis of adaptive variation in natural populations is a first step towards understanding the process of adaptive evolution, yet few ecologically relevant traits have been characterized at the genetic level in wild populations. Traits that mediate coevolutionary interactions between species are ideal for studying adaptation because of the intensity of selection and the well-characterized ecological context. We have previously described the ecological context, evolutionary history and partial genetic basis of tetrodotoxin (TTX) resistance in garter snakes (Thamnophis). Derived mutations in a voltage-gated sodium channel gene (Na(v)1.4) in three garter snake species are associated with resistance to TTX, the lethal neurotoxin found in their newt prey (Taricha). Here we evaluate the contribution of Na(v)1.4 alleles to TTX resistance in two of those species from central coastal California. We measured the phenotypes (TTX resistance) and genotypes (Na(v)1.4 and microsatellites) in a local sample of Thamnophis atratus and Thamnophis sirtalis. Allelic variation in Na(v)1.4 explains 23 per cent of the variation in TTX resistance in T. atratus while variation in a haphazard sample of the genome (neutral microsatellite markers) shows no association with the phenotype. Similarly, allelic variation in Na(v)1.4 correlates almost perfectly with TTX resistance in T. sirtalis, but neutral variation does not. These strong correlations suggest that Na(v)1.4 is a major effect locus. The simple genetic architecture of TTX resistance in garter snakes may significantly impact the dynamics of phenotypic coevolution. Fixation of a few alleles of major effect in some garter snake populations may have led to the evolution of extreme phenotypes and an 'escape' from the arms race with newts.

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