Evidence for multiple genetic forms with similar eyeless phenotypes in the blind cavefish, Astyanax mexicanus

Mol Biol Evol. 2002 Apr;19(4):446-55. doi: 10.1093/oxfordjournals.molbev.a004100.


A diverse group of animals has adapted to caves and lost their eyes and pigmentation, but little is known about how these animals and their striking phenotypes have evolved. The teleost Astyanax mexicanus consists of an eyed epigean form (surface fish) and at least 29 different populations of eyeless hypogean forms (cavefish). Current alternative hypotheses suggest that adaptation to cave environments may have occurred either once or multiple times during the evolutionary history of this species. If the latter is true, the unique phenotypes of different cave-dwelling populations may result from convergence of form, and different genetic changes and developmental processes may have similar morphological consequences. Here we report an analysis of variation in the mitochondrial NADH dehydrogenase 2 (ND2) gene among different surface fish and cavefish populations. The results identify a minimum of two genetically distinctive cavefish lineages with similar eyeless phenotypes. The distinction between these divergent forms is supported by differences in the number of rib-bearing thoracic vertebrae in their axial skeletons. The geographic distribution of ND2 haplotypes is consistent with roles for multiple founder events and introgressive hybridization in the evolution of cave-related phenotypes. The existence of multiple genetic lineages makes A. mexicanus an excellent model to study convergence and the genes and developmental pathways involved in the evolution of the eye and pigment degeneration.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Blindness / enzymology
  • Blindness / genetics*
  • DNA Primers / chemistry
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics
  • Fishes / genetics*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental / physiology
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Enzymologic / physiology*
  • Haplotypes
  • Mitochondria / enzymology*
  • NADH Dehydrogenase / genetics*
  • NADH Dehydrogenase / metabolism
  • Phenotype*
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Polymorphism, Single-Stranded Conformational
  • Thoracic Vertebrae


  • DNA Primers
  • DNA, Mitochondrial
  • NADH dehydrogenase II
  • NADH Dehydrogenase