Species diverge eco-morphologically through the continuous action of natural selection on functionally important structures, producing alternative adaptive morphologies. In cichlid fishes, the oral and pharyngeal jaws are such key structures. Adaptive variation in jaw morphology contributes to trophic specialization, which is hypothesized to fuel their rapid speciation in the East African Great Lakes. Much is known about the genes involved in cichlid jaw and craniofacial development. However, it is still unclear what salient sources of variation gave rise to trophic-niche specialization, facilitating adaptive radiation. Here, we explore two sources of transcriptional variation that may underlie species-specific disparities in jaw morphology. Using whole transcriptome RNA-sequencing, we analyze differences in gene expression and alternative splicing, at the end of postlarval development, in fully functional jaws of six species of cichlids from the Lake Tanganyika tribe Tropheini. Our data reveal a surprisingly high degree of alternative splicing events compared with gene expression differences among species and trophic types. This suggests that differential trophic adaptation of the jaw apparatus may have been shaped by transcriptional rewiring of splicing as well as gene expression variation during the rapid radiation of the Tropheini. Specifically, genes undergoing splicing across most species were found to be enriched for pharyngeal jaw gene ontology terms. Overall, jaw transcriptional patterns at postlarval developmental stage were highly dynamic and species-specific. In conclusion, this work indicates that shifts in alternative splicing could have played a more important role in cichlid adaptive radiation, and possibly adaptive radiation in general, than currently recognized.
Keywords: RNA-seq; adaptive radiation; alternative splicing; gene expression; jaws.
© The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution.