Background: The origin of novel traits and their subsequent diversification represent central themes in evo-devo and evolutionary ecology. Here we explore the genetic and genomic basis of a class of traits that is both novel and highly diverse, in a group of organisms that is ecologically complex and experimentally tractable: horned beetles.
Results: We developed two high quality, normalized cDNA libraries for larval and pupal Onthophagus taurus and sequenced 3,488 ESTs that assembled into 451 contigs and 2,330 singletons. We present the annotation and a comparative analysis of the conservation of the sequences. Microarrays developed from the combined libraries were then used to contrast the transcriptome of developing primordia of head horns, prothoracic horns, and legs. Our experiments identify a first comprehensive list of candidate genes for the evolution and diversification of beetle horns. We find that developing horns and legs show many similarities as well as important differences in their transcription profiles, suggesting that the origin of horns was mediated partly, but not entirely, by the recruitment of genes involved in the formation of more traditional appendages such as legs. Furthermore, we find that horns developing from the head and prothorax differ in their transcription profiles to a degree that suggests that head and prothoracic horns are not serial homologs, but instead may have evolved independently from each other.
Conclusion: We have laid the foundation for a systematic analysis of the genetic basis of horned beetle development and diversification with the potential to contribute significantly to several major frontiers in evolutionary developmental biology.