Diapause is the classic adaptation to seasonality in arthropods, and its expression can result in extreme lifespan extension as well as enhanced resistance to environmental challenges. Little is known about the underlying evolutionary genetic architecture of diapause in any organism. Drosophila melanogaster exhibits a reproductive diapause that is variable within and among populations; the incidence of diapause increases with more temperate climates and has significant pleiotropic effects on a number of life history traits. Using quantitative trait mapping, we identified the RNA-binding protein encoding gene couch potato (cpo) as a major genetic locus determining diapause phenotype in D. melanogaster and independently confirmed this ability to impact diapause expression through genetic complementation mapping. By sequencing this gene in samples from natural populations we demonstrated through linkage association that variation for the diapause phenotype is caused by a single Lys/Ile substitution in one of the six cpo transcripts. Complementation analyses confirmed that the identified amino acid variants are functionally distinct with respect to diapause expression, and the polymorphism also shows geographic variation that closely mirrors the known latitudinal cline in diapause incidence. Our results suggest that a naturally occurring amino acid polymorphism results in the variable expression of a diapause syndrome that is associated with the seasonal persistence of this model organism in temperate habitats.