A challenge for evolutionary research is to uncover how new morphological traits evolve the coordinated spatial and temporal expression patterns of genes that govern their formation during development. Detailed studies are often limited to characterizing how one or a few genes contributed to a trait's emergence, and thus our knowledge of how entire GRNs evolve their coordinated expression of each gene remains unresolved. The melanic color patterns decorating the male abdominal tergites of Drosophila (D.) melanogaster evolved in part by novel expression patterns for genes acting at the terminus of a pigment metabolic pathway, driven by cis-regulatory elements (CREs) with distinct mechanisms of Hox regulation. Here, we examined the expression and evolutionary histories of two important enzymes in this pathway, encoded by the pale and Ddc genes. We found that while both genes exhibit dynamic patterns of expression, a robust pattern of Ddc expression specifically evolved in the lineage of fruit flies with pronounced melanic abdomens. Derived Ddc expression requires the activity of a CRE previously shown to activate expression in response to epidermal wounding. We show that a binding site for the Grainy head transcription factor that promotes the ancestral wound healing function of this CRE is also required for abdominal activity. Together with previous findings in this system, our work shows how the GRN for a novel trait emerged by assembling unique yet similarly functioning CREs from heterogeneous starting points.
Keywords: Drosophila; Gene regulatory network; Hox; Morphological evolution; Transcription factor; cis-Regulatory element.
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