Background: Evolution depends on natural selection acting on phenotypic variation, but the genes responsible for phenotypic variation in natural populations of vertebrates are rarely known. The molecular genetic basis for plumage color variation has not been described in any wild bird. Bananaquits (Coereba flaveola) are small passerine birds that occur as two main plumage variants, a widespread yellow morph with dark back and yellow breast and a virtually all black melanic morph. A candidate gene for this color difference is the melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R), a key regulator of melanin synthesis in feather melanocytes.
Results: We sequenced the MC1R gene from four Caribbean populations of the bananaquit; two populations of the yellow morph and two populations containing both the yellow morph and the melanic morph. A point mutation resulting in the replacement of glutamate with lysine was present in at least one allele of the MC1R gene in all melanic birds and was absent in all yellow morph birds. This substitution probably causes the color variation, as the same substitution is responsible for melanism in domestic chickens and mice. The evolutionary relationships among the MC1R haplotypes show that the melanic alleles on Grenada and St. Vincent had a single origin. The low prevalence of nonsynonymous substitutions among yellow haplotypes suggests that they have been under stabilizing selection, whereas strong selective constraint on melanic haplotypes is absent.
Conclusions: We conclude that a mutation in the MC1R is responsible for the plumage polymorphism in a wild bird population and that the melanic MC1R alleles in Grenada and St. Vincent bananaquit populations have a single evolutionary origin from a yellow allele.