Background: Adaptation to a new environment can be facilitated by co-inheritance of a suite of phenotypes that are all advantageous in the new habitat. Although experimental evidence demonstrates that multiple phenotypes often map to the same genomic regions, it is challenging to determine whether phenotypes are associated due to pleiotropic effects of a single gene or to multiple tightly linked genes. In the threespine stickleback fish (Gasterosteus aculeatus), multiple phenotypes are associated with a genomic region around the gene Ectodysplasin (Eda), but only the presence of bony lateral plates has been conclusively shown to be caused by Eda.
Results: Here, we ask whether pleiotropy or linkage is responsible for the association between lateral plates and the distribution of the neuromasts of the lateral line. We first identify a strong correlation between plate appearance and changes in the spatial distribution of neuromasts through development. We then use an Eda transgene to induce the formation of ectopic plates in low plated fish, which also results in alterations to neuromast distribution. Our results also show that other loci may modify the effects of Eda on plate formation and neuromast distribution.
Conclusions: Together, these results demonstrate that Eda has pleiotropic effects on at least two phenotypes, highlighting the role of pleiotropy in the genetic basis of adaptation.