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Sep 04, 2015
BMC Evolutionary Biology
BACKGROUND: A fundamental and enduring problem in evolutionary biology is to understand how populations differentiate in the wild, yet little is known about what role organismal development plays in this process. Organismal development integrates environmental inputs with the action of gene regulatory networks to generate the phenotype. Core developmental gene networks have been highly conserved for millions of years across all animals, and therefore, organismal development may bias variation available for selection to work on. Biased variation may facilitate repeatable phenotypic responses when exposed to similar environmental inputs and ecological changes. To gain a more complete understanding of population differentiation in the wild, we integrated evolutionary developmental biology with population genetics, morphology, paleoecology and ecology. This integration was made possible by studying how populations of the ant species Monomorium emersoni respond to climatic and ecological changes across five 'Sky Islands' in Arizona, which are mountain ranges separated by vast 'seas' of desert. Sky Islands represent a replicated natural experiment allowing us to determine how repeatable is the response of M. emersoni populations to climate and ecological changes at the phenotypic, developmental, and gene network levels. RESULTS: We show that a core developmental gene network and its phenotype has kept pace with ecological and climate change on each Sky Island over the last ~90,000 years before present (BP). This response has produced two types of evolutionary change within an ant species: one type is unpredictable and contingent on the pattern of isolation of Sky lsland populations by climate warming, resulting in slight changes in gene expression, organ growth, and morphology. The other type is predictable and deterministic, resulting in the repeated evolution of a novel wingless queen phenotype and its underlying gene network in response to habitat changes induced by climate warming. CONCLUSION: Our findings reveal dynamics of developmental gene network evolution in wild populations. This holds important implications: (1) for understanding how phenotypic novelty is generated in the wild; (2) for providing a possible bridge between micro- and macroevolution; and (3) for understanding how development mediates the response of organisms to past, and potentially, future climate change.

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