The altered gene also changed the flies' pheromones, chemical signals that influence mating behavior. As a result, the researchers show in the Dec. 5 issue of Science, the two groups of flies are not only fit for different environments but may also be on their way to sexual isolation, a crucial divide in the emergence of a new species.
"This study directly connects genetics with evolution," said Chung-I Wu, Ph.D., professor and chairman of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago and director of the study. "For the first time, we were able to demonstrate the vast importance in an evolutionary context of a small genetic change that has already occurred in nature."
"We had the luxury," added co-author Tony Greenberg, Ph.D., a postdoctoral student in Wu's laboratory, "of watching the essential event in Darwinian evolution, the first step in the origin of a new species. We were quite impressed, that this simple alteration played such a dramatic role, both adapting flies to a new environment and changing their sex appeal. Once two groups become sexually isolated, there's no turning back."
The scientists used a new technique to knock out one gene from fruit flies and then replace it with one of two slightly different versions of the same gene.
They focused on a gene called desaturase2 that plays a role in fat metabolism. Flies from Africa and the Caribbean, where there is tremendous competition for food but cold temperatures are not a problem, have one version of ds2. Flies from cooler climates, where there is less competition for food but greater temperature variation, have a smaller, inactive version of ds2.
The same gene plays a role in the production of cuticular hydrocarbons -- waxy, aromatic compounds that coat the abdomen of female flies. A male fly, in a romantic mood, strokes the female's abdomen with his feet, which have sensors that recognize specific hydrocarbons, like a perfume.
In a previous report, Wu's laboratory found most males with the temperate version of the ds2 gene preferred females with the same gene; tropical males preferred tropical females.
"Developing increased cold tolerance was an important step for flies that migrated out of Africa to Europe and Asia," Wu said. The change in pheromones, which altered patterns of sexual attraction, "was a by-product of adaptation to colder weather."
Fruit flies have a migratory history similar to humans. They originated in Africa, spread to Europe and Asia and went on to populate the world. As with humans, there is greater diversity within African flies than between flies from Africa and other continents.
Although fruit flies have been a favorite model for the study of genetics since the early 20th century, recognition of consistent differences between tropical and temperate flies came only in 1995. The discovery, however, "has allowed a lot of analysis of the evolution of adaptive traits," Wu said.
"But this was the first time we have been able to study the process from the very beginning," he added, "to watch the first steps as one species begins to split into two, then seals the bargain by increasing sexual isolation. This is the essence of biodiversity."
Additional authors include Jennifer Moran from the Wu lab and Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago. The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation funded the study.