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1.  Masculinization of Gene Expression Is Associated with Exaggeration of Male Sexual Dimorphism 
PLoS Genetics  2013;9(8):e1003697.
Gene expression differences between the sexes account for the majority of sexually dimorphic phenotypes, and the study of sex-biased gene expression is important for understanding the genetic basis of complex sexual dimorphisms. However, it has been difficult to test the nature of this relationship due to the fact that sexual dimorphism has traditionally been conceptualized as a dichotomy between males and females, rather than an axis with individuals distributed at intermediate points. The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) exhibits just this sort of continuum, with dominant and subordinate males forming a gradient in male secondary sexual characteristics. This makes it possible for the first time to test the correlation between sex-biased gene expression and sexually dimorphic phenotypes, a relationship crucial to molecular studies of sexual selection and sexual conflict. Here, we show that subordinate male transcriptomes show striking multiple concordances with their relative phenotypic sexual dimorphism. Subordinate males were clearly male rather than intersex, and when compared to dominant males, their transcriptomes were simultaneously demasculinized for male-biased genes and feminized for female-biased genes across the majority of the transcriptome. These results provide the first evidence linking sexually dimorphic transcription and sexually dimorphic phenotypes. More importantly, they indicate that evolutionary changes in sexual dimorphism can be achieved by varying the magnitude of sex-bias in expression across a large proportion of the coding content of a genome.
Author Summary
Males and females exhibit many differences in morphology, behavior and physiology, yet they share the vast majority of their genomes. Most differences between the sexes are therefore thought to be the product of gene expression differences between females and males. Studies of sex differences in expression assume that genes expressed more in males encode male traits, and genes expressed more in females encode female traits, and this assumption is a key foundation to genetic studies of sexual dimorphism and sexual conflict. Despite this key assumption, this relationship has yet to be empirically tested, as the main model organisms for studies of sex-biased gene expression lack multiple male and female morphs. Here, we use the two male morphs in the wild turkey to show that the magnitude of male-biased gene expression correlates with the manifestation of sexually dimorphic traits. Males with less manifestation of sexual dimorphism in phenotype were both demasculinized for male-biased genes, as well as feminized for female-biased genes. This pattern encompassed the majority of expressed loci, suggesting that evolutionary changes in the magnitude of sexual dimorphism may be achieved by small changes in the magnitude of sex-biased transcription across thousands of genes.
PMCID: PMC3744414  PMID: 23966876
2.  RUNX2 tandem repeats and the evolution of facial length in placental mammals 
When simple sequence repeats are integrated into functional genes, they can potentially act as evolutionary ‘tuning knobs’, supplying abundant genetic variation with minimal risk of pleiotropic deleterious effects. The genetic basis of variation in facial shape and length represents a possible example of this phenomenon. Runt-related transcription factor 2 (RUNX2), which is involved in osteoblast differentiation, contains a functionally-important tandem repeat of glutamine and alanine amino acids. The ratio of glutamines to alanines (the QA ratio) in this protein seemingly influences the regulation of bone development. Notably, in domestic breeds of dog, and in carnivorans in general, the ratio of glutamines to alanines is strongly correlated with facial length.
In this study we examine whether this correlation holds true across placental mammals, particularly those mammals for which facial length is highly variable and related to adaptive behavior and lifestyle (e.g., primates, afrotherians, xenarthrans). We obtained relative facial length measurements and RUNX2 sequences for 41 mammalian species representing 12 orders. Using both a phylogenetic generalized least squares model and a recently-developed Bayesian comparative method, we tested for a correlation between genetic and morphometric data while controlling for phylogeny, evolutionary rates, and divergence times. Non-carnivoran taxa generally had substantially lower glutamine-alanine ratios than carnivorans (primates and xenarthrans with means of 1.34 and 1.25, respectively, compared to a mean of 3.1 for carnivorans), and we found no correlation between RUNX2 sequence and face length across placental mammals.
Results of our diverse comparative phylogenetic analyses indicate that QA ratio does not consistently correlate with face length across the 41 mammalian taxa considered. Thus, although RUNX2 might function as a ‘tuning knob’ modifying face length in carnivorans, this relationship is not conserved across mammals in general.
PMCID: PMC3438065  PMID: 22741925
Mammalian evolution; Prognathism; Molecular evolution; Primates; Afrotheria; Xenarthra; Morphology
3.  Testing whether macroevolution follows microevolution: Are colour differences among swans (Cygnus) attributable to variation at the MC1R locus? 
The MC1R (melanocortin-1 receptor) locus underlies intraspecific variation in melanin-based dark plumage coloration in several unrelated birds with plumage polymorphisms. There is far less evidence for functional variants of MC1R being involved in interspecific variation, in which spurious genotype-phenotype associations arising through population history are a far greater problem than in intraspecific studies. We investigated the relationship between MC1R variation and plumage coloration in swans (Cygnus), which show extreme variation in melanic plumage phenotypes among species (white to black).
The two species with melanic plumage, C. atratus and C. melanocoryphus (black and black-necked swans respectively), both have amino acid changes at important functional sites in MC1R that are consistent with increased MC1R activity and melanism. Reconstruction of MC1R evolution over a newly generated independent molecular phylogeny of Cygnus and related genera shows that these putative melanizing mutations were independently derived in the two melanic lineages. However, interpretation is complicated by the fact that one of the outgroup genera, Coscoroba, also has a putative melanizing mutation at MC1R that has arisen independently but has nearly pure white plumage. Epistasis at other loci seems the most likely explanation for this discrepancy. Unexpectedly, the phylogeny shows that the genus Cygnus may not be monophyletic, with C. melanocoryphus placed as a sister group to true geese (Anser), but further data will be needed to confirm this.
Our study highlights the difficulty of extrapolating from intraspecific studies to understand the genetic basis of interspecific adaptive phenotypic evolution, even with a gene whose structure-function relationships are as well understood as MC1R as confounding variation make clear genotype/phenotype associations difficult at the macroevolutionary scale. However, the identification of substitutions in the black and black-necked swan that are known to be associated with melanic phenotypes, suggests Cygnus may be another example where there appears to be convergent evolution at MC1R. This study therefore provides a novel example where previously described intraspecific genotype/phenotype associations occur at the macroevolutionary level.
PMCID: PMC2553801  PMID: 18789136

Results 1-3 (3)