In plants, pollinator adaptation is considered to be a major driving force for floral diversification and speciation. However, the genetic basis of pollinator adaptation is poorly understood. The orchid genus Ophrys mimics its pollinators' mating signals and is pollinated by male insects during mating attempts. In many species of this genus, chemical mimicry of the pollinators' pheromones, especially of alkenes with different double-bond positions, plays a key role for specific pollinator attraction. Thus, different alkenes produced in different species are probably a consequence of pollinator adaptation. In this study, we identify genes that are likely involved in alkene biosynthesis, encoding stearoyl-acyl carrier protein (ACP) desaturases (SAD), in three closely related Ophrys species, O. garganica, O. sphegodes, and O. exaltata. Combining floral odor and gene expression analyses, two SAD homologs (SAD1/2) showed significant association with the production of (Z)-9- and (Z)-12-alkenes that were abundant in O. garganica and O. sphegodes, supporting previous biochemical data. In contrast, two other newly identified homologs (SAD5/6) were significantly associated with (Z)-7-alkenes that were highly abundant only in O. exaltata. Both molecular evolutionary analyses and pollinator preference tests suggest that the alkenes associated with SAD1/2 and SAD5/6 are under pollinator-mediated divergent selection among species. The expression patterns of these genes in F1 hybrids indicate that species-specific expression differences in SAD1/2 are likely due to cis-regulation, while changes in SAD5/6 are likely due to trans-regulation. Taken together, we report a genetic mechanism for pollinator-mediated divergent selection that drives adaptive changes in floral alkene biosynthesis involved in reproductive isolation among Ophrys species.
In plants, the extraordinary floral diversity has been suggested to be a consequence of divergent adaptation. However, the genetic basis of this process is poorly understood. In this study, we take advantage of the high specificity of plant-pollinator interactions in the sexually deceptive orchid genus Ophrys. We leverage the available, ample evidence showing that floral odors, especially alkenes, are the key factor for specific pollinator attraction in certain species of these orchids. Further, we investigate the genetic basis of pollinator adaptation. By applying an inter-disciplinary approach, including chemical ecology, gene expression analysis, population genetics, and pollinator-behavioral tests, we show that genetic changes in different copies of a biosynthetic gene are associated with the production of different floral scents and with pollinator adaptation in these orchid species. Moreover, we found that both cis- and trans-regulatory factors are likely involved in controlling gene expression of these biosynthetic gene copies. These findings support the hypothesis that adaptation is mediated by very few genetic changes with large phenotypic effects, rather than requiring a large number of co-adapted genes.