Ecological speciation is the process by which barriers to gene flow between populations evolve due to adaptive divergence via natural selection. A relatively unexplored area in ecological speciation is the role of gene expression. Gene expression may be associated with ecologically important phenotypes not evident from morphology and play a role during colonization of new environments. Here we review two potential roles of gene expression in ecological speciation: (1) its indirect role in facilitating population persistence and (2) its direct role in contributing to genetically based reproductive isolation. We find indirect evidence that gene expression facilitates population persistence, but direct tests are lacking. We also find clear examples of gene expression having effects on phenotypic traits and adaptive genetic divergence, but links to the evolution of reproductive isolation itself remain indirect. Gene expression during adaptive divergence seems to often involve complex genetic architectures controlled by gene networks, regulatory regions, and "eQTL hotspots." Nonetheless, we review how approaches for isolating the functional mutations contributing to adaptive divergence are proving to be successful. The study of gene expression has promise for increasing our understanding ecological speciation, particularly when integrative approaches are applied.
© 2010 New York Academy of Sciences.