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11/02/17 | Nuclear microenvironments modulate transcription from low-affinity enhancers.
Tsai A, Muthusamy AK, Alves MRp, Lavis LD, Singer RH, Stern DL, Crocker J
eLife. 2017 Nov 02;6:. doi: 10.7554/eLife.28975

Transcription factors bind low-affinity DNA sequences for only short durations. It is not clear how brief, low-affinity interactions can drive efficient transcription. Here we report that the transcription factor Ultrabithorax (Ubx) utilizes low-affinity binding sites in the Drosophila melanogastershavenbaby (svb) locus and related enhancers in nuclear microenvironments of high Ubx concentrations. Related enhancers colocalize to the same microenvironments independently of their chromosomal location, suggesting that microenvironments are highly differentiated transcription domains. Manipulating the affinity of svb enhancers revealed an inverse relationship between enhancer affinity and Ubx concentration required for transcriptional activation. The Ubx cofactor, Homothorax (Hth), was co-enriched with Ubx near enhancers that require Hth, even though Ubx and Hth did not co-localize throughout the nucleus. Thus, microenvironments of high local transcription factor and cofactor concentrations could help low-affinity sites overcome their kinetic inefficiency. Mechanisms that generate these microenvironments could be a general feature of eukaryotic transcriptional regulation.

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08/29/17 | Experimental and statistical reevaluation provides no evidence for Drosophila courtship song rhythms.
Stern DL, Clemens J, Coen P, Calhoun AJ, Hogenesch JB, Arthur BJ, Murthy M
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2017 Aug 29:. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1707471114

From 1980 to 1992, a series of influential papers reported on the discovery, genetics, and evolution of a periodic cycling of the interval between Drosophila male courtship song pulses. The molecular mechanisms underlying this periodicity were never described. To reinitiate investigation of this phenomenon, we previously performed automated segmentation of songs but failed to detect the proposed rhythm [Arthur BJ, et al. (2013) BMC Biol 11:11; Stern DL (2014) BMC Biol 12:38]. Kyriacou et al. [Kyriacou CP, et al. (2017) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 114:1970-1975] report that we failed to detect song rhythms because (i) our flies did not sing enough and (ii) our segmenter did not identify many of the song pulses. Kyriacou et al. manually annotated a subset of our recordings and reported that two strains displayed rhythms with genotype-specific periodicity, in agreement with their original reports. We cannot replicate this finding and show that the manually annotated data, the original automatically segmented data, and a new dataset provide no evidence for either the existence of song rhythms or song periodicity differences between genotypes. Furthermore, we have reexamined our methods and analysis and find that our automated segmentation method was not biased to prevent detection of putative song periodicity. We conclude that there is no evidence for the existence of Drosophila courtship song rhythms.

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01/03/17 | A fully synthetic transcriptional platform for a multicellular eukaryote.
Crocker J, Tsai A, Stern DL
Cell Reports. 2017 Jan 03;18(1):287-296. doi: 10.1016/j.celrep.2016.12.025

Regions of genomic DNA called enhancers encode binding sites for transcription factor proteins. Binding of activators and repressors increase and reduce transcription, respectively, but it is not understood how combinations of activators and repressors generate precise patterns of transcription during development. Here, we explore this problem using a fully synthetic transcriptional platform in Drosophila consisting of engineered transcription factor gradients and artificial enhancers. We found that binding sites for a transcription factor that makes DNA accessible are required together with binding sites for transcriptional activators to produce a functional enhancer. Only in this context can changes in the number of activator binding sites mediate quantitative control of transcription. Using an engineered transcriptional repressor gradient, we demonstrate that overlapping repressor and activator binding sites provide more robust repression and sharper expression boundaries than non-overlapping sites. This may explain why this common motif is observed in many developmental enhancers.

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11/10/16 | Evolved repression overcomes enhancer robustness.
Ben Noon EPreger, Davis FP, Stern DL
Developmental Cell. 2016 Nov 10;39(5):572-84. doi: 10.1016/j.devcel.2016.10.010

Biological systems display extraordinary robustness. Robustness of transcriptional enhancers results mainly from clusters of binding sites for the same transcription factor, and it is not clear how robust enhancers can evolve loss of expression through point mutations. Here, we report the high-resolution functional dissection of a robust enhancer of the shavenbaby gene that has contributed to morphological evolution. We found that robustness is encoded by many binding sites for the transcriptional activator Arrowhead and that, during evolution, some of these activator sites were lost, weakening enhancer activity. Complete silencing of enhancer function, however, required evolution of a binding site for the spatially restricted potent repressor Abrupt. These findings illustrate that recruitment of repressor binding sites can overcome enhancer robustness and may minimize pleiotropic consequences of enhancer evolution. Recruitment of repression may be a general mode of evolution to break robust regulatory linkages.

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08/10/16 | Natural courtship song variation caused by an intronic retroelement in an ion channel gene.
Ding Y, Berrocal A, Morita T, Longden KD, Stern DL
Nature. 2016 Aug 10:. doi: 10.1038/nature19093

Animal species display enormous variation for innate behaviours, but little is known about how this diversity arose. Here, using an unbiased genetic approach, we map a courtship song difference between wild isolates of Drosophila simulans and Drosophila mauritiana to a 966 base pair region within the slowpoke (slo) locus, which encodes a calcium-activated potassium channel. Using the reciprocal hemizygosity test, we confirm that slo is the causal locus and resolve the causal mutation to the evolutionarily recent insertion of a retroelement in a slo intron within D. simulans. Targeted deletion of this retroelement reverts the song phenotype and alters slo splicing. Like many ion channel genes, slo is expressed widely in the nervous system and influences a variety of behaviours; slo-null males sing little song with severely disrupted features. By contrast, the natural variant of slo alters a specific component of courtship song, illustrating that regulatory evolution of a highly pleiotropic ion channel gene can cause modular changes in behaviour.

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06/20/16 | Doublesex regulates the connectivity of a neural circuit controlling Drosophila male courtship song.
Shirangi TR, Wong AM, Truman JW, Stern DL
Developmental Cell. 2016 Jun 20;37(6):533-44. doi: 10.1016/j.devcel.2016.05.012

It is unclear how regulatory genes establish neural circuits that compose sex-specific behaviors. The Drosophila melanogaster male courtship song provides a powerful model to study this problem. Courting males vibrate a wing to sing bouts of pulses and hums, called pulse and sine song, respectively. We report the discovery of male-specific thoracic interneurons—the TN1A neurons—that are required specifically for sine song. The TN1A neurons can drive the activity of a sex-non-specific wing motoneuron, hg1, which is also required for sine song. The male-specific connection between the TN1A neurons and the hg1 motoneuron is regulated by the sexual differentiation gene doublesex. We find that doublesex is required in the TN1A neurons during development to increase the density of the TN1A arbors that interact with dendrites of the hg1motoneuron. Our findings demonstrate how a sexual differentiation gene can build a sex-specific circuit motif by modulating neuronal arborization.

Doublesex-expressing TN1 neurons are necessary and sufficient for the male sine song•A subclass of TN1 neurons, TN1A, contributes to the sine song•TN1A neurons are functionally coupled to a sine song motoneuron, hg1Doublesex regulates the connectivity between the TN1A and hg1 neurons

It is unclear how developmental regulatory genes specify sex-specific behaviors. Shirangi et al. demonstrate that the Drosophila sexual differentiation gene doublesex encodes a sex-specific behavior—male song—by promoting the connectivity between the male-specific TN1A neurons and the sex-non-specific hg1 neurons, which are required for production of the song.

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02/08/16 | Quantitatively predictable control of Drosophila transcriptional enhancers in vivo with engineered transcription factors.
Crocker J, Ilsley GR, Stern DL
Nature Genetics. 2016 Feb 8:. doi: 10.1038/ng.3509

Genes are regulated by transcription factors that bind to regions of genomic DNA called enhancers. Considerable effort is focused on identifying transcription factor binding sites, with the goal of predicting gene expression from DNA sequence. Despite this effort, general, predictive models of enhancer function are currently lacking. Here we combine quantitative models of enhancer function with manipulations using engineered transcription factors to examine the extent to which enhancer function can be controlled in a quantitatively predictable manner. Our models, which incorporate few free parameters, can accurately predict the contributions of ectopic transcription factor inputs. These models allow the predictable 'tuning' of enhancers, providing a framework for the quantitative control of enhancers with engineered transcription factors.

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Multiple methods have been introduced over the past 30 years to identify the genomic insertion sites of transposable elements and other DNA elements that integrate into genomes. However, each of these methods suffer from limitations that can frustrate attempts to map multiple insertions in a single genome and to map insertions in genomes of high complexity that contain extensive repetitive DNA. I introduce a new method for transposon mapping that is simple to perform, can accurately map multiple insertions per genome, and generates long sequence reads that facilitate mapping to complex genomes. The method, called TagMap, for Tagmentation-based Mapping, relies on a modified Tn5 tagmentation protocol with a single tagmentation adaptor followed by PCR using primers specific to the tranposable element and the adaptor sequence. Several minor modifications to normal tagmentation reagents and protocols allow easy and rapid preparation of TagMap libraries. Short read sequencing starting from the adaptor sequence generates oriented reads that flank and are oriented toward the transposable element insertion site. The convergent orientation of adjacent reads at the insertion site allows straightforward prediction of the precise insertion site(s). A Linux shell script is provided to identify insertion sites from fastq files.

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01/16/15 | Low affinity binding site clusters confer Hox specificity and regulatory robustness.
Crocker J, Abe N, Rinaldi L, McGregor AP, Frankel N, Wang S, Alsawadi A, Valenti P, Plaza S, Payre F, Mann RS, Stern DL
Cell. 2015 Jan 15;160:191-203. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2014.11.041

In animals, Hox transcription factors define regional identity in distinct anatomical domains. How Hox genes encode this specificity is a paradox, because different Hox proteins bind with high affinity in vitro to similar DNA sequences. Here, we demonstrate that the Hox protein Ultrabithorax (Ubx) in complex with its cofactor Extradenticle (Exd) bound specifically to clusters of very low affinity sites in enhancers of the shavenbaby gene of Drosophila. These low affinity sites conferred specificity for Ubx binding in vivo, but multiple clustered sites were required for robust expression when embryos developed in variable environments. Although most individual Ubx binding sites are not evolutionarily conserved, the overall enhancer architecture-clusters of low affinity binding sites-is maintained and required for enhancer function. Natural selection therefore works at the level of the enhancer, requiring a particular density of low affinity Ubx sites to confer both specific and robust expression.

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12/12/14 | Evolved differences in larval social behavior mediated by novel pheromones.
Mast JD, De Moraes CM, Alborn HT, Lavis LD, Stern DL
eLife. 2014 Dec 12;3:. doi: 10.7554/eLife.04205

Pheromones, chemical signals that convey social information, mediate many insect social behaviors, including navigation and aggregation. Several studies have suggested that behavior during the immature larval stages of Drosophila development is influenced by pheromones, but none of these compounds or the pheromone-receptor neurons that sense them have been identified. Here we report a larval pheromone-signaling pathway. We found that larvae produce two novel long-chain fatty acids that are attractive to other larvae. We identified a single larval chemosensory neuron that detects these molecules. Two members of the pickpocket family of DEG/ENaC channel subunits (ppk23 and ppk29) are required to respond to these pheromones. This pheromone system is evolving quickly, since the larval exudates of D. simulans, the sister species of D. melanogaster, are not attractive to other larvae. Our results define a new pheromone signaling system in Drosophila that shares characteristics with pheromone systems in a wide diversity of insects.

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12/03/14 | Identification of loci that cause phenotypic variation in diverse species with the reciprocal hemizygosity test.
Stern DL
Trends in Genetics. 2014 Dec;30(12):547-554. doi: 10.1016/j.tig.2014.09.006

The reciprocal hemizygosity test is a straightforward genetic test that can positively identify genes that have evolved to contribute to a phenotypic difference between strains or between species. The test involves a comparison between hybrids that are genetically identical throughout the genome except at the test locus, which is rendered hemizygous for alternative alleles from the two parental strains. If the two reciprocal hemizygotes display different phenotypes, then the two parental alleles must have evolved. New methods for targeted mutagenesis will allow application of the reciprocal hemizygosity test in many organisms. This review discusses the principles, advantages, and limitations of the test.

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06/30/13 | TALE-mediated modulation of transcriptional enhancers in vivo.
Crocker J, Stern DL
Nature Methods. 2013 Jun 30;10(8):762-7. doi: 10.1038/nmeth.2543

We tested whether transcription activator-like effectors (TALEs) could mediate repression and activation of endogenous enhancers in the Drosophila genome. TALE repressors (TALERs) targeting each of the five even-skipped (eve) stripe enhancers generated repression specifically of the focal stripes. TALE activators (TALEAs) targeting the eve promoter or enhancers caused increased expression primarily in cells normally activated by the promoter or targeted enhancer, respectively. This effect supports the view that repression acts in a dominant fashion on transcriptional activators and that the activity state of an enhancer influences TALE binding or the ability of the VP16 domain to enhance transcription. In these assays, the Hairy repression domain did not exhibit previously described long-range transcriptional repression activity. The phenotypic effects of TALER and TALEA expression in larvae and adults are consistent with the observed modulations of eve expression. TALEs thus provide a novel tool for detection and functional modulation of transcriptional enhancers in their native genomic context.

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10/01/13 | The genetic causes of convergent evolution.
Stern DL
Nature Reviews Genetics. 2013 Oct 9;14(11):751-4. doi: 10.1038/nrg3483advance online publication

The evolution of phenotypic similarities between species, known as convergence, illustrates that populations can respond predictably to ecological challenges. Convergence often results from similar genetic changes, which can emerge in two ways: the evolution of similar or identical mutations in independent lineages, which is termed parallel evolution; and the evolution in independent lineages of alleles that are shared among populations, which I call collateral genetic evolution. Evidence for parallel and collateral evolution has been found in many taxa, and an emerging hypothesis is that they result from the fact that mutations in some genetic targets minimize pleiotropic effects while simultaneously maximizing adaptation. If this proves correct, then the molecular changes underlying adaptation might be more predictable than has been appreciated previously.

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12/19/13 | The structure and evolution of cis-regulatory regions: the shavenbaby story.
Stern DL, Frankel N
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences. 2013 Dec 19;368(1632):20130028. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2013.0028

In this paper, we provide a historical account of the contribution of a single line of research to our current understanding of the structure of cis-regulatory regions and the genetic basis for morphological evolution. We revisit the experiments that shed light on the evolution of larval cuticular patterns within the genus Drosophila and the evolution and structure of the shavenbaby gene. We describe the experiments that led to the discovery that multiple genetic changes in the cis-regulatory region of shavenbaby caused the loss of dorsal cuticular hairs (quaternary trichomes) in first instar larvae of Drosophila sechellia. We also discuss the experiments that showed that the convergent loss of quaternary trichomes in D. sechellia and Drosophila ezoana was generated by parallel genetic changes in orthologous enhancers of shavenbaby. We discuss the observation that multiple shavenbaby enhancers drive overlapping patterns of expression in the embryo and that these apparently redundant enhancers ensure robust shavenbaby expression and trichome morphogenesis under stressful conditions. All together, these data, collected over 13 years, provide a fundamental case study in the fields of gene regulation and morphological evolution, and highlight the importance of prolonged, detailed studies of single genes.

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11/14/13 | Motor control of Drosophila courtship song.
Shirangi TR, Stern DL, Truman JW
Cell Reports. 2013 Nov 14;5:678-86. doi: 10.1016/j.celrep.2013.09.039

Many animals utilize acoustic signals-or songs-to attract mates. During courtship, Drosophila melanogaster males vibrate a wing to produce trains of pulses and extended tone, called pulse and sine song, respectively. Courtship songs in the genus Drosophila are exceedingly diverse, and different song features appear to have evolved independently of each other. How the nervous system allows such diversity to evolve is not understood. Here, we identify a wing muscle in D. melanogaster (hg1) that is uniquely male-enlarged. The hg1 motoneuron and the sexually dimorphic development of the hg1 muscle are required specifically for the sine component of the male song. In contrast, the motoneuron innervating a sexually monomorphic wing muscle, ps1, is required specifically for a feature of pulse song. Thus, individual wing motor pathways can control separate aspects of courtship song and may provide a "modular" anatomical substrate for the evolution of diverse songs.

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12/16/14 | Aphids evolved novel secreted proteins for symbiosis with bacterial endosymbiont.
Shigenobu S, Stern DL
Proc Biol Sci. 2013 Jan 7;280(1750):20121952. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.1952

Aphids evolved novel cells, called bacteriocytes, that differentiate specifically to harbour the obligatory mutualistic endosymbiotic bacteria Buchnera aphidicola. The genome of the host aphid Acyrthosiphon pisum contains many orphan genes that display no similarity with genes found in other sequenced organisms, prompting us to hypothesize that some of these orphan genes are related to lineage-specific traits, such as symbiosis. We conducted deep sequencing of bacteriocytes mRNA followed by whole mount in situ hybridizations of over-represented transcripts encoding aphid-specific orphan proteins. We identified a novel class of genes that encode small proteins with signal peptides, which are often cysteine-rich, that are over-represented in bacteriocytes. These genes are first expressed at a developmental time point coincident with the incorporation of symbionts strictly in the cells that contribute to the bacteriocyte and this bacteriocyte-specific expression is maintained throughout the aphid's life. The expression pattern suggests that recently evolved secretion proteins act within bacteriocytes, perhaps to mediate the symbiosis with beneficial bacterial partners, which is reminiscent of the evolution of novel cysteine-rich secreted proteins of leguminous plants that regulate nitrogen-fixing endosymbionts.

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12/16/14 | Conserved regulatory architecture underlies parallel genetic changes and convergent phenotypic evolution.
Frankel N, Wang S, Stern DL
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Dec 18;109(51):20975-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1207715109

Similar morphological, physiological, and behavioral features have evolved independently in different species, a pattern known as convergence. It is known that morphological convergence can occur through changes in orthologous genes. In some cases of convergence, cis-regulatory changes generate parallel modifications in the expression patterns of orthologous genes. Our understanding of how changes in cis-regulatory regions contribute to convergence is hampered, usually, by a limited understanding of the global cis-regulatory structure of the evolving genes. Here we examine the genetic causes of a case of precise phenotypic convergence between Drosophila sechellia and Drosophila ezoana, species that diverged ~40 Mya. Previous studies revealed that changes in multiple transcriptional enhancers of shavenbaby (svb, a transcript of the ovo locus) caused phenotypic evolution in the D. sechellia lineage. It has also been shown that the convergent phenotype of D. ezoana was likely caused by cis-regulatory evolution of svb. Here we show that the large-scale cis-regulatory architecture of svb is conserved between these Drosophila species. Furthermore, we show that the D. ezoana orthologs of the evolved D. sechellia enhancers have also evolved expression patterns that correlate precisely with the changes in the phenotype. Our results suggest that phenotypic convergence resulted from multiple noncoding changes that occurred in parallel in the D. sechellia and D. ezoana lineages.

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04/01/11 | Multiplexed shotgun genotyping for rapid and efficient genetic mapping.
Andolfatto P, Davison D, Erezyilmaz D, Hu TT, Mast J, Sunayama-Morita T, Stern DL
Genome Research. 2011 Apr;21(4):610-7. doi: 10.1101/gr.115402.110

We present a new approach to genotyping based on multiplexed shotgun sequencing that can identify recombination breakpoints in a large number of individuals simultaneously at a resolution sufficient for most mapping purposes, such as quantitative trait locus (QTL) mapping and mapping of induced mutations. We first describe a simple library construction protocol that uses just 10 ng of genomic DNA per individual and makes the approach accessible to any laboratory with standard molecular biology equipment. Sequencing this library results in a large number of sequence reads widely distributed across the genomes of multiplexed bar-coded individuals. We develop a Hidden Markov Model to estimate ancestry at all genomic locations in all individuals using these data. We demonstrate the utility of the approach by mapping a dominant marker allele in D. simulans to within 105 kb of its true position using 96 F1-backcross individuals genotyped in a single lane on an Illumina Genome Analyzer. We further demonstrate the utility of our method by genetically mapping more than 400 previously unassembled D. simulans contigs to linkage groups and by evaluating the quality of targeted introgression lines. At this level of multiplexing and divergence between strains, our method allows estimation of recombination breakpoints to a median of 38-kb intervals. Our analysis suggests that higher levels of multiplexing and/or use of strains with lower levels of divergence are practicable.

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06/30/11 | Morphological evolution caused by many subtle-effect substitutions in regulatory DNA.
Frankel N, Erezyilmaz DF, McGregor AP, Wang S, Payre F\ccois, Stern DL
Nature. 2011 Jun 30;474(7353):598-603. doi: 10.1038/nature10200

Morphology evolves often through changes in developmental genes, but the causal mutations, and their effects, remain largely unknown. The evolution of naked cuticle on larvae of Drosophila sechellia resulted from changes in five transcriptional enhancers of shavenbaby (svb), a transcript of the ovo locus that encodes a transcription factor that governs morphogenesis of microtrichiae, hereafter called ’trichomes’. Here we show that the function of one of these enhancers evolved through multiple single-nucleotide substitutions that altered both the timing and level of svb expression. The consequences of these nucleotide substitutions on larval morphology were quantified with a novel functional assay. We found that each substitution had a relatively small phenotypic effect, and that many nucleotide changes account for this large morphological difference. In addition, we observed that the substitutions had non-additive effects. These data provide unprecedented resolution of the phenotypic effects of substitutions and show how individual nucleotide changes in a transcriptional enhancer have caused morphological evolution.

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07/22/10 | Phenotypic robustness conferred by apparently redundant transcriptional enhancers.
Frankel N, Davis GK, Vargas D, Wang S, Payre F, Stern DL
Nature. 2010 Jul 22;466(7305):490-3. doi: 10.1038/nature09158

Genes include cis-regulatory regions that contain transcriptional enhancers. Recent reports have shown that developmental genes often possess multiple discrete enhancer modules that drive transcription in similar spatio-temporal patterns: primary enhancers located near the basal promoter and secondary, or ’shadow’, enhancers located at more remote positions. It has been proposed that the seemingly redundant activity of primary and secondary enhancers contributes to phenotypic robustness. We tested this hypothesis by generating a deficiency that removes two newly discovered enhancers of shavenbaby (svb, a transcript of the ovo locus), a gene encoding a transcription factor that directs development of Drosophila larval trichomes. At optimal temperatures for embryonic development, this deficiency causes minor defects in trichome patterning. In embryos that develop at both low and high extreme temperatures, however, absence of these secondary enhancers leads to extensive loss of trichomes. These temperature-dependent defects can be rescued by a transgene carrying a secondary enhancer driving transcription of the svb cDNA. Finally, removal of one copy of wingless, a gene required for normal trichome patterning, causes a similar loss of trichomes only in flies lacking the secondary enhancers. These results support the hypothesis that secondary enhancers contribute to phenotypic robustness in the face of environmental and genetic variability.

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For too long, efforts to synthesize evolution and development have failed to build a united view of the origins and evolution of biological diversity. In this groundbreaking book, David Stern sets out to draw evolutionary biology and developmental biology together by cutting through the differences that divide the disciplines and by revealing their deeper similarities. He draws upon the insights of generations of evolutionary biologists and scores of developmental biologists to build a solid foundation for future investigation of the genetic and developmental causes of diversity. Along the way, and in plain English, he explicates many of the guiding principles of evolution, population genetics, and developmental biology. Each chapter offers a clear review of fundamental principles, together with thoughtprovoking ideas that will be tested only with data emerging from current and future studies. With the basic principles established, he then offers a new way of thinking about development—backwards—to clarify precisely how the mechanisms of development influence evolution. In the same spirit, he takes a fresh look at evolution in populations, arguing that population history influences precisely how developmental mechanisms evolve. Both Stern's new perspective on development and his reassessment of the role of populations leads to the surprising conclusion that the evolution of genomes appears to be predictable. Stern argues that developmental biology and evolutionary biology are intertwined: it is impossible to understand one of them fully without understanding the other. This book provides a clear and wide-ranging introduction to evolution and development for the basic reader; graduate students will be introduced to the cutting-edge of research in evolutionary developmental biology; and experts in evolution or development will receive both an uncomplicated introduction to the other discipline and an abundance of new, provocative ideas.

Stern, David L. Evolution, Development, and the Predictable Genome. Austin, TX: Roberts and Company Publishers, 2010.

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02/06/09 | Is genetic evolution predictable?
Stern DL, Orgogozo V
Science. 2009 Feb 6;323:746-51. doi: 10.1126/science.1158997

Ever since the integration of Mendelian genetics into evolutionary biology in the early 20th century, evolutionary geneticists have for the most part treated genes and mutations as generic entities. However, recent observations indicate that all genes are not equal in the eyes of evolution. Evolutionarily relevant mutations tend to accumulate in hotspot genes and at specific positions within genes. Genetic evolution is constrained by gene function, the structure of genetic networks, and population biology. The genetic basis of evolution may be predictable to some extent, and further understanding of this predictability requires incorporation of the specific functions and characteristics of genes into evolutionary theory.

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09/01/08 | The loci of evolution: how predictable is genetic evolution?
Stern DL, Orgogozo V
Evolution. 2008 Sep;62(9):2155-77. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2008.00450.x

Is genetic evolution predictable? Evolutionary developmental biologists have argued that, at least for morphological traits, the answer is a resounding yes. Most mutations causing morphological variation are expected to reside in the cis-regulatory, rather than the coding, regions of developmental genes. This "cis-regulatory hypothesis" has recently come under attack. In this review, we first describe and critique the arguments that have been proposed in support of the cis-regulatory hypothesis. We then test the empirical support for the cis-regulatory hypothesis with a comprehensive survey of mutations responsible for phenotypic evolution in multicellular organisms. Cis-regulatory mutations currently represent approximately 22% of 331 identified genetic changes although the number of cis-regulatory changes published annually is rapidly increasing. Above the species level, cis-regulatory mutations altering morphology are more common than coding changes. Also, above the species level cis-regulatory mutations predominate for genes not involved in terminal differentiation. These patterns imply that the simple question "Do coding or cis-regulatory mutations cause more phenotypic evolution?" hides more interesting phenomena. Evolution in different kinds of populations and over different durations may result in selection of different kinds of mutations. Predicting the genetic basis of evolution requires a comprehensive synthesis of molecular developmental biology and population genetics.

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08/02/07 | Morphological evolution through multiple cis-regulatory mutations at a single gene.
McGregor AP, Orgogozo V, Delon I, Zanet J, Srinivasan DG, Payre F\ccois, Stern DL
Nature. 2007 Aug 2;448(7153):587-90. doi: 10.1038/nature05988

One central, and yet unsolved, question in evolutionary biology is the relationship between the genetic variants segregating within species and the causes of morphological differences between species. The classic neo-darwinian view postulates that species differences result from the accumulation of small-effect changes at multiple loci. However, many examples support the possible role of larger abrupt changes in the expression of developmental genes in morphological evolution. Although this evidence might be considered a challenge to a neo-darwinian micromutationist view of evolution, there are currently few examples of the actual genes causing morphological differences between species. Here we examine the genetic basis of a trichome pattern difference between Drosophila species, previously shown to result from the evolution of a single gene, shavenbaby (svb), probably through cis-regulatory changes. We first identified three distinct svb enhancers from D. melanogaster driving reporter gene expression in partly overlapping patterns that together recapitulate endogenous svb expression. All three homologous enhancers from D. sechellia drive expression in modified patterns, in a direction consistent with the evolved svb expression pattern. To test the influence of these enhancers on the actual phenotypic difference, we conducted interspecific genetic mapping at a resolution sufficient to recover multiple intragenic recombinants. This functional analysis revealed that independent genetic regions upstream of svb that overlap the three identified enhancers are collectively required to generate the D. sechellia trichome pattern. Our results demonstrate that the accumulation of multiple small-effect changes at a single locus underlies the evolution of a morphological difference between species. These data support the view that alleles of large effect that distinguish species may sometimes reflect the accumulation of multiple mutations of small effect at select genes.

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09/01/05 | The temporal requirements for insulin signaling during development in Drosophila.
Shingleton AW, Das J, Vinicius L, Stern DL
PLoS Biol. 2005 Sep;3(9):e289. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0030289

Recent studies have indicated that the insulin-signaling pathway controls body and organ size in Drosophila, and most metazoans, by signaling nutritional conditions to the growing organs. The temporal requirements for insulin signaling during development are, however, unknown. Using a temperature-sensitive insulin receptor (Inr) mutation in Drosophila, we show that the developmental requirements for Inr activity are organ specific and vary in time. Early in development, before larvae reach the "critical size" (the size at which they commit to metamorphosis and can complete development without further feeding), Inr activity influences total development time but not final body and organ size. After critical size, Inr activity no longer affects total development time but does influence final body and organ size. Final body size is affected by Inr activity from critical size until pupariation, whereas final organ size is sensitive to Inr activity from critical size until early pupal development. In addition, different organs show different sensitivities to changes in Inr activity for different periods of development, implicating the insulin pathway in the control of organ allometry. The reduction in Inr activity is accompanied by a two-fold increase in free-sugar levels, similar to the effect of reduced insulin signaling in mammals. Finally, we find that varying the magnitude of Inr activity has different effects on cell size and cell number in the fly wing, providing a potential linkage between the mode of action of insulin signaling and the distinct downstream controls of cell size and number. We present a model that incorporates the effects of the insulin-signaling pathway into the Drosophila life cycle. We hypothesize that the insulin-signaling pathway controls such diverse effects as total developmental time, total body size and organ size through its effects on the rate of cell growth, and proliferation in different organs.

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10/01/03 | Developmental origin and evolution of bacteriocytes in the aphid-Buchnera symbiosis.
Braendle C, Miura T, Bickel R, Shingleton AW, Kambhampati S, Stern DL
PLoS Biol. 2003 Oct;1(1):E21. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0000021

Symbiotic relationships between bacteria and insect hosts are common. Although the bacterial endosymbionts have been subjected to intense investigation, little is known of the host cells in which they reside, the bacteriocytes. We have studied the development and evolution of aphid bacteriocytes, the host cells that contain the endosymbiotic bacteria Buchnera aphidicola. We show that bacteriocytes of Acyrthosiphon pisum express several gene products (or their paralogues): Distal-less, Ultrabithorax/Abdominal-A, and Engrailed. Using these markers, we find that a subpopulation of the bacteriocytes is specified prior to the transmission of maternal bacteria to the embryo. In addition, we discovered that a second population of cells is recruited to the bacteriocyte fate later in development. We experimentally demonstrate that bacteriocyte induction and proliferation occur independently of B. aphidicola. Major features of bacteriocyte development, including the two-step recruitment of bacteriocytes, have been conserved in aphids for 80-150 million years. Furthermore, we have investigated two cases of evolutionary loss of bacterial symbionts: in one case, where novel extracellular, eukaryotic symbionts replaced the bacteria, the bacteriocyte is maintained; in another case, where symbionts are absent, the bacteriocytes are initiated but not maintained. The bacteriocyte represents an evolutionarily novel cell fate, which is developmentally determined independently of the bacteria. Three of five transcription factors we examined show novel expression patterns in bacteriocytes, suggesting that bacteriocytes may have evolved to express many additional transcription factors. The evolutionary transition to a symbiosis in which bacteria and an aphid cell form a functional unit, similar to the origin of plastids, has apparently involved extensive molecular adaptations on the part of the host cell.

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08/21/03 | Regulatory evolution of shavenbaby/ovo underlies multiple cases of morphological parallelism.
Sucena E, Delon I, Jones I, Payre F, Stern DL
Nature. 2003 Aug 21;424(6951):935-8. doi: 10.1038/nature01768

Cases of convergent evolution that involve changes in the same developmental pathway, called parallelism, provide evidence that a limited number of developmental changes are available to evolve a particular phenotype. To our knowledge, in no case are the genetic changes underlying morphological convergence understood. However, morphological convergence is not generally assumed to imply developmental parallelism. Here we investigate a case of convergence of larval morphology in insects and show that the loss of particular trichomes, observed in one species of the Drosophila melanogaster species group, has independently evolved multiple times in the distantly related D. virilis species group. We present genetic and gene expression data showing that regulatory changes of the shavenbaby/ovo (svb/ovo) gene underlie all independent cases of this morphological convergence. Our results indicate that some developmental regulators might preferentially accumulate evolutionary changes and that morphological parallelism might therefore be more common than previously appreciated.

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08/01/00 | Evolutionary developmental biology and the problem of variation.
Stern DL
Evolution. 2000 Aug;54(4):1079-91

One of the oldest problems in evolutionary biology remains largely unsolved. Which mutations generate evolutionarily relevant phenotypic variation? What kinds of molecular changes do they entail? What are the phenotypic magnitudes, frequencies of origin, and pleiotropic effects of such mutations? How is the genome constructed to allow the observed abundance of phenotypic diversity? Historically, the neo-Darwinian synthesizers stressed the predominance of micromutations in evolution, whereas others noted the similarities between some dramatic mutations and evolutionary transitions to argue for macromutationism. Arguments on both sides have been biased by misconceptions of the developmental effects of mutations. For example, the traditional view that mutations of important developmental genes always have large pleiotropic effects can now be seen to be a conclusion drawn from observations of a small class of mutations with dramatic effects. It is possible that some mutations, for example, those in cis-regulatory DNA, have few or no pleiotropic effects and may be the predominant source of morphological evolution. In contrast, mutations causing dramatic phenotypic effects, although superficially similar to hypothesized evolutionary transitions, are unlikely to fairly represent the true path of evolution. Recent developmental studies of gene function provide a new way of conceptualizing and studying variation that contrasts with the traditional genetic view that was incorporated into neo-Darwinian theory and population genetics. This new approach in developmental biology is as important for microevolutionary studies as the actual results from recent evolutionary developmental studies. In particular, this approach will assist in the task of identifying the specific mutations generating phenotypic variation and elucidating how they alter gene function. These data will provide the current missing link between molecular and phenotypic variation in natural populations.

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We report an extreme morphological difference between Drosophila sechellia and related species of the pattern of hairs on first-instar larvae. On the dorsum of most species, the posterior region of the anterior compartment of most segments is covered by a carpet of fine hairs. In D. sechellia, these hairs have been lost and replaced with naked cuticle. Genetic mapping experiments and interspecific complementation tests indicate that this difference is caused, in its entirety, by evolution at the ovo/shaven-baby locus. The pattern of expression of the ovo/shaven-baby transcript is correlated with this morphological change. The altered dorsal cuticle pattern is probably caused by evolution of the cis-regulatory region of ovo/shaven-baby in the D. sechellia lineage.

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12/03/98 | A role of Ultrabithorax in morphological differences between Drosophila species.
Stern DL
Nature. 1998 Dec 3;396(6710):463-6. doi: 10.1038/24863

The mechanisms underlying the evolution of morphology are poorly understood. Distantly related taxa sometimes exhibit correlations between morphological differences and patterns of gene expression, but such comparisons cannot establish how mechanisms evolve to generate diverse morphologies. Answers to these questions require resolution of the nature of developmental evolution within and between closely related species. Here I show how the detailed regulation of the Hox gene Ultrabithorax patterns trichomes on the posterior femur of the second leg in Drosophila melanogaster, and that evolution of Ultrabithorax has contributed to divergence of this feature among closely related species. The cis-regulatory regions of Ultrabithorax, and not the protein itself, appear to have evolved. This study provides experimental evidence that cis-regulatory evolution is one way in which conserved proteins have promoted morphological diversity.

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02/01/96 | The evolution of soldiers in aphids.
Stern DL, Foster WA
Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 1996 Feb;71(1):27-79

1. Defensive individuals, termed soldiers, have recently been discovered in aphids, Soldiers are typically early instar larvae, and in many species the soldiers are reproductively sterile and morphologically and behaviourally specialized. 2. Since aphids reproduce parthenogenetically, we might expect soldier production to be more widespread in aphids than it is. We suggest that a more useful way to think about these problems is to attempt to understand how a clone (rather than an individual) should invest in defence and reproduction. 3. Known soldiers are currently restricted to two families of aphids, the Pemphigidae and Hormaphididae, although they are distributed widely among genera within these families. We discuss the use of a phylogenetic perspective to aid comparative studies of soldier production and we demonstrate this approach using current estimates of phylogenetic affinities among aphids. We show that the distribution of soldier production requires a minimum of six to nine evolutionary origins plus at least one loss. 4. At least four main types of soldiers exist and we present and discuss this diversity of soldiers. 5. Most soldier-producing species produce soldiers within plant galls and we discuss the importance of galls for the evolution of soldiers. 6. We summarize the evidence on the interactions between soldiers and predators and between soldier-producing aphids and ants. 7. We present an optimality model for soldier investment strategies to help guide investigations of the ecological factors selecting for soldiers. 8. The proximate mechanisms of soldier production are currently very poorly understood and we suggest several avenues for further research.

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04/22/95 | Phylogenetic evidence that aphids, rather than plants, determine gall morphology
Stern DL
Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences;260(1357):85-89. doi: 10.1098/rspb.1995.0063

Many diverse taxa have evolved independently the habit of living in plant galls. For all but some viral galls, it is unknown whether plants produce galls as a specialized plant reaction to certain types of herbivory, or whether herbivores direct gall development. Here I present a phylogenetic analysis of gallforming cerataphidine aphids which demonstrates that gall morphology is extremely conservative with respect to aphid phylogeny, but variable with respect to plant taxonomy. In addition, the phylogeny reveals at least three host plant switches where the aphids produce galls most similar to the galls of their closest relatives, rather than galls similar to the galls of aphids already present on the host plant. These results suggest that aphids determine the details of gall morphology essentially extending their phenotype to include plant material. Based on this and other evidence, I suggest that the aphids and other galling insects manipulate latent plant developmental programmes to produce modified atavistic plant morphologies rather than create new forms de novo.

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05/23/94 | A phylogenetic analysis of soldier evolution in the aphid family Hormaphididae.
Stern DL
Proc Biol Sci. 1994 May 23;256(1346):203-9. doi: 10.1098/rspb.1994.0071

Aphid soldiers, altruistic larvae that protect the colony from predators, are an example of highly social behaviour in an insect group with a natural history different from the eusocial Hymenoptera and Isoptera. Aphids therefore allow independent tests of theory developed to explain the evolution of eusociality. Although soldiers have been discovered in five tribes from two families, the number and pattern of origins and losses of soldiers is unknown due to a lack of phylogenetic data. Here I present a mtDNA based phylogeny for the Hormaphididae, and test the hypothesis that soldiers in the tribe Cerataphidini produced during two points in the life cycle represent independent origins. The results support this hypothesis. In addition, a minimum of five evolutionary events, either four origins and one loss or five origins, are required to explain the distribution of soldiers in the family. The positions of the origins and losses are well resolved, and this phylogeny provides an historical framework for studies on the causes of soldier aphid evolution.

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