Background: Changes in developmental gene expression are central to phenotypic evolution, but the genetic mechanisms underlying these changes are not well understood. Interspecific differences in gene expression can arise from evolutionary changes in cis-regulatory DNA and/or in the expression of trans-acting regulatory proteins, but few case studies have distinguished between these mechanisms. Here, we compare the regulation of the yellow gene, which is required for melanization, among distantly related Drosophila species with different pigment patterns and determine the phenotypic effects of divergent Yellow expression.
Results: Yellow expression has diverged among D. melanogaster, D. subobscura, and D. virilis and, in all cases, correlates with the distribution of black melanin. Species-specific Yellow expression patterns were retained in D. melanogaster transformants carrying the D. subobscura and D. virilis yellow genes, indicating that sequence evolution within the yellow gene underlies the divergence of Yellow expression. Evolutionary changes in the activity of orthologous cis-regulatory elements are responsible for differences in abdominal Yellow expression; however, cis-regulatory element evolution is not the sole cause of divergent Yellow expression patterns. Transformation of the D. melanogaster yellow gene into D. virilis altered its expression pattern, indicating that trans-acting factors that regulate the D. melanogaster yellow gene have also diverged between these two species. Finally, we found that the phenotypic effects of evolutionary changes in Yellow expression depend on epistatic interactions with other genes.
Conclusions: Evolutionary changes in Yellow expression correlate with divergent melanin patterns and are a result of evolution in both cis- and trans-regulation. These changes were likely necessary for the divergence of pigmentation, but evolutionary changes in other genes were also required.