Modular skeletal evolution in sticklebacks is controlled by additive and clustered quantitative trait Loci. Academic Article uri icon


  • Understanding the genetic architecture of evolutionary change remains a long-standing goal in biology. In vertebrates, skeletal evolution has contributed greatly to adaptation in body form and function in response to changing ecological variables like diet and predation. Here we use genome-wide linkage mapping in threespine stickleback fish to investigate the genetic architecture of evolved changes in many armor and trophic traits. We identify >100 quantitative trait loci (QTL) controlling the pattern of serially repeating skeletal elements, including gill rakers, teeth, branchial bones, jaws, median fin spines, and vertebrae. We use this large collection of QTL to address long-standing questions about the anatomical specificity, genetic dominance, and genomic clustering of loci controlling skeletal differences in evolving populations. We find that most QTL (76%) that influence serially repeating skeletal elements have anatomically regional effects. In addition, most QTL (71%) have at least partially additive effects, regardless of whether the QTL controls evolved loss or gain of skeletal elements. Finally, many QTL with high LOD scores cluster on chromosomes 4, 20, and 21. These results identify a modular system that can control highly specific aspects of skeletal form. Because of the general additivity and genomic clustering of major QTL, concerted changes in both protective armor and trophic traits may occur when sticklebacks inherit either marine or freshwater alleles at linked or possible "supergene" regions of the stickleback genome. Further study of these regions will help identify the molecular basis of both modular and coordinated changes in the vertebrate skeleton.

publication date

  • May 2014