Overruled by nature: A plastic response to environmental change disconnects a gene and its trait

Mol Ecol. 2023 Mar 21. doi: 10.1111/mec.16933. Online ahead of print.


In Atlantic salmon, age at maturation is a life history trait governed by a sex-specific trade-off between reproductive success and survival. Following environmental changes across large areas of the Northeast Atlantic, many populations currently display smaller size at age and higher age at maturation. However, whether these changes reflect rapid evolution or plasticity is unknown. Approximately 1500 historical and contemporary salmon from the river Etne in Western Norway, genotyped at 50,000 SNPs, revealed three loci associated with age at maturation. These included vgll3 and six6 which collectively explained 36%-50% of the age at maturation variation in the 1983-1984 period. These two loci also displayed sex-specific epistasis, as the effect of six6 was only detected in males bearing two copies of the late maturation allele for vgll3. Strikingly, despite allelic frequencies at vgll3 remaining unchanged, the combined influence of these genes was nearly absent in all samples from 2013 to 2016, and genome-wide heritability strongly declined between the two time-points. The difference in age at maturation between males and females was upheld in the population despite the loss of effect from the candidate loci, which strongly points towards additional causative mechanisms resolving the sexual conflict. Finally, because admixture with farmed escaped salmon was excluded as the origin of the observed disconnection between gene(s) and maturation age, we conclude that the environmental changes observed in the North Atlantic during the past decades have led to bypassing of the influence of vgll3 and six6 on maturation through growth-driven plasticity.

Keywords: phenotypic plasticity; salmon maturation; sexual conflict; six6; vgll3.