A modular circuit architecture coordinates the diversification of courtship strategies in Drosophila

bioRxiv [Preprint]. 2023 Sep 17:2023.09.16.558080. doi: 10.1101/2023.09.16.558080.


Identifying a mate is a central imperative for males of most species but poses the challenge of distinguishing a suitable partner from an array of potential male competitors or females of related species. Mate recognition systems are thus subject to strong selective pressures, driving the rapid coevolution of female sensory cues and male sensory preferences. Here we leverage the rapid evolution of female pheromones across the Drosophila genus to gain insight into how males coordinately adapt their detection and interpretation of these chemical cues to hone their mating strategies. While in some Drosophila species females produce unique pheromones that act to attract and arouse their conspecific males, the pheromones of most species are sexually monomorphic such that females possess no distinguishing chemosensory signatures that males can use for mate recognition. By comparing several close and distantly-related Drosophila species, we reveal that D. yakuba males have evolved the distinct ability to use a sexually-monomorphic pheromone, 7-tricosene (7-T), as an excitatory cue to promote courtship, a sensory innovation that enables D. yakuba males to court in the dark thereby expanding their reproductive opportunities. To gain insight into the neural adaptations that enable 7-T to act as an excitatory cue, we compared the functional properties of two key nodes within the pheromone circuits of D. yakuba and a subset of its closest relatives. We show that the instructive role of 7-T in D. yakuba arises from concurrent peripheral and central circuit changes: a distinct subpopulation of sensory neurons has acquired sensitivity to 7-T which in turn selectively signals to a distinct subset of P1 neurons in the central brain that trigger courtship behaviors. Such a modular circuit organization, in which different sensory inputs can independently couple to multiple parallel courtship control nodes, may facilitate the evolution of mate recognition systems by allowing males to take advantage of novel sensory modalities to become aroused. Together, our findings suggest how peripheral and central circuit adaptations can be flexibly linked to underlie the rapid evolution of mate recognition and courtship strategies across species.

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