Organisms respond to environmental variation partly through changes in gene expression, which underlie both homeostatic and acclimatory responses to environmental stress. In some cases, so many genes change in expression in response to different influences that understanding expression patterns for all these individual genes becomes difficult. To reduce this problem, we use a systems genetics approach to show that variation in the expression of thousands of genes of reef-building corals can be explained as variation in the expression of a small number of coexpressed "modules." Modules were often enriched for specific cellular functions and varied predictably among individuals, experimental treatments, and physiological state. We describe two transcriptional modules for which expression levels immediately after heat stress predict bleaching a day later. One of these early "bleaching modules" is enriched for sequence-specific DNA-binding proteins, particularly E26 transformation-specific (ETS)-family transcription factors. The other module is enriched for extracellular matrix proteins. These classes of bleaching response genes are clear in the modular gene expression analysis we conduct but are much more difficult to discern in single gene analyses. Furthermore, the ETS-family module shows repeated differences in expression among coral colonies grown in the same common garden environment, suggesting a heritable genetic or epigenetic basis for these expression polymorphisms. This finding suggests that these corals harbor high levels of gene-network variation, which could facilitate rapid evolution in the face of environmental change.
Keywords: coexpression; phenotypic plasticity; standing variation.
© The Author(s) 2015. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution.