Sunday, February 27, 2011

It's not just the genes...

Increasingly we are realizing that it isn't just the genes that are important but how those genes are expressed.

This was nicely illustrated in a Science paper this week where they looked at the role of the Agouti gene in pattern development: The Developmental Role of Agouti in Color Pattern Evolution.

Agouti, ... governs color patterns in deer mice, the most widespread mammal in North America. This gene, found in all vertebrates, may establish color pattern in a wide variety of species, a process that has been poorly understood at both the molecular and the evolutionary level.

Agouti had previously been known to affect the type of pigment found in vertebrate fur, feathers, and scales: Little expression of the gene in adults results in the production of dark pigments, while robust Agouti activity generally yields light pigment production. But Manceau and Hoekstra found that subtle changes in the gene's embryonic activity can also make a profound difference in the distribution of pigments across the entire body.

"During embryogenesis, Agouti is expressed in the belly, where it delays maturation of the cells that will eventually produce pigments," says Hoekstra, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Natural Sciences at Harvard. "This leads to a lighter colored belly in adults, which is the most common color pattern across a wide variety of vertebrates, from fish to antelope."

Even small changes in Agouti gene expression can establish a completely new color pattern. In deer mice, natural selection drives changes in the amount and place of Agouti expression, which in turn results in new color patterns that can camouflage animals from visual predators in habitats including dark forests and light sandy beaches.

"It is hard not to speculate that Agouti plays a role in generating more complex patterns -- from stripes to spots -- in a diversity of vertebrates," Hoekstra says.
 
 Looking for a picture of a leopard to add I found this cool picture of a black panther (panthers are just black leopards). Notice how you can see the pattern of spots in the fur even though the fur is all black.

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