Many insect species are host-obligate specialists. The evolutionary mechanism driving the adaptation of a species to a toxic host is, however, intriguing. We analyzed the tight association of Drosophila sechellia to its sole host, the fruit of Morinda citrifolia, which is toxic to other members of the melanogaster species group. Molecular polymorphisms in the dopamine regulatory protein Catsup cause infertility in D. sechellia due to maternal arrest of oogenesis. In its natural host, the fruit compensates for the impaired maternal dopamine metabolism with the precursor l-DOPA, resuming oogenesis and stimulating egg production. l-DOPA present in morinda additionally increases the size of D. sechellia eggs, what in turn enhances early fitness. We argue that the need of l-DOPA for successful reproduction has driven D. sechellia to become an M. citrifolia obligate specialist. This study illustrates how an insect's dopaminergic system can sustain ecological adaptations by modulating ontogenesis and development.
Many insect species rely on another animal or plant species for their own reproduction. For example, a fruit fly called Drosophila sechellia—which is found in the Seychelles—will only feed and lay its eggs on the fruit of a species of tree called Morinda citrifolia. This pairing is particularly unusual because these fruits, commonly called morinda, are toxic to all other Drosophila species.
Female Drosophila sechellia flies produce fewer eggs than other Drosophila species, which makes it difficult to raise this species in the laboratory. However providing these flies with morinda fruit, or chemicals from this fruit, was known to increase the expression of many genes involved in egg production and stimulate the flies to lay more eggs. Nevertheless, the reasons why this species of fruit fly depends on the toxic morinda fruit were unclear.
Now Lavista-Llanos et al. have confirmed that feeding Drosophila sechellia flies a diet of morinda fruit—instead of a typical laboratory diet—causes these flies to produce six-times as many eggs. Furthermore, this morinda diet had effects that went beyond the previously reported stimulatory effects of acidic chemicals in the fruits triggering the flies to lay more eggs.
Egg production in flies is controlled by dopamine, and a lack of this hormone is known to reduce the size of other fruit flies' ovaries and the number of eggs that they produce. Lavista-Llanos et al. went on to feed female Drosophila sechellia flies the chemical building blocks that make up the dopamine hormone, and one such chemical (called l-DOPA) caused the flies to produce more eggs. This did not occur when the flies were fed dopamine itself.
Lavista-Llanos et al. discovered that Drosophila sechellia flies have very high levels of dopamine but much lower levels of l-DOPA than other Drosophila fly species; and revealed that this was because a gene called Catsup is mutated in Drosophila sechellia. When Lavista-Llanos et al. mutated the same gene in another Drosophila species, the mutant flies produced fewer eggs and abnormally accumulated an enzyme (which makes l-DOPA) inside their developing eggs—just like Drosophila sechellia.
The presence of l-DOPA in morinda fruit partly compensates for the reduced fertility of Drosophila sechellia and the other flies with mutations in the Catsup gene. Lavista-Llanos et al. discovered that removing or replacing l-DOPA in the morinda fruit caused the flies to produce fewer eggs. Furthermore, the l-DOPA present in morinda increases the size of Drosophila sechellia eggs, which in turn helps them to survive their toxic environment.
Lavista-Llanos et al. also discovered that feeding dopamine to vulnerable Drosophila species helps them to cope with the toxic effects of a morinda diet. One of the next challenges will be to uncover how chemicals from the morinda fruit affect the dopamine system of the flies. It is also unknown if the dopamine hormone also influences the strong attraction that Drosophila sechellia feels towards its only host, the morinda fruit.