Adaptive evolution of lateral plates in three-spined stickleback Gasterosteus aculeatus: a case study in functional analysis of natural variation
The three-spined stickleback Gasterosteus aculeatus is a model species for studying questions in ecology and evolution. The rapid diversification of G. aculeatus in post-glacial freshwater environments, combined with recently developed molecular tools, provides a unique opportunity to study the functional basis of fitness variation in natural populations. In derived freshwater populations, a number of morphological traits have diverged in parallel from the marine ancestral state, including the number of lateral armour plates. Evolution of reduced armour in freshwater populations is due to positive selection from both abiotic and biotic mechanisms. The major effect gene (ectodysplasin-A or Eda), along with several minor effect genetic regions, has recently been shown to control lateral plate variation. Field experiments have further determined the fitness consequences of allelic variation at the major effect locus. This work helps elucidate the mechanisms connecting genetic variation with phenotypic variation and fitness in the wild, a synthesis that should be applicable to many other phenotypic traits and species of fishes.