Background: Transcriptome analysis may provide means to investigate the underlying genetic causes of shared and divergent phenotypes in different populations and help to identify potential targets of adaptive evolution. Applying RNA sequencing to whole male Drosophila melanogaster from the ancestral tropical African environment and a very recently colonized cold-temperate European environment at both standard laboratory conditions and following a cold shock, we seek to uncover the transcriptional basis of cold adaptation.
Results: In both the ancestral and the derived populations, the predominant characteristic of the cold shock response is the swift and massive upregulation of heat shock proteins and other chaperones. Although we find ~25 % of the genome to be differentially expressed following a cold shock, only relatively few genes (n = 16) are up- or down-regulated in a population-specific way. Intriguingly, 14 of these 16 genes show a greater degree of differential expression in the African population. Likewise, there is an excess of genes with particularly strong cold-induced changes in expression in Africa on a genome-wide scale.
Conclusions: The analysis of the transcriptional cold shock response most prominently reveals an upregulation of components of a general stress response, which is conserved over many taxa and triggered by a plethora of stressors. Despite the overall response being fairly similar in both populations, there is a definite excess of genes with a strong cold-induced fold-change in Africa. This is consistent with a detrimental deregulation or an overshooting stress response. Thus, the canalization of European gene expression might be responsible for the increased cold tolerance of European flies.
Keywords: Adaptation; Canalization; Cold tolerance; Transcriptomics.