Studies on the evolution of a coevolutionary key innovation:
Wheat, C. W., H. Vogel, U. Wittstock, M. F. Braby, D. Underwood, and T. Mitchell-Olds 2007 The genetic basis of a coevolutionary key innovation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 104(51):20427-20431. 2371 PDF . Supplemental Material
Abstract: Ehrlich and Raven formally introduced the concept of stepwise coevolution using butterfly and angiosperm interactions in an attempt to account for the impressive biological diversity of these groups. However, many biologists currently envision butterflies evolving 50 to 30 million years (Myr) after the major angiosperm radiation and thus reject coevolutionary origins of butterfly biodiversity. The unresolved central tenet of Ehrlich and Raven’s theory is that evolution of plant chemical defenses is followed closely by biochemical adaptation in insect herbivores, and that newly evolved detoxification mechanisms result in adaptive radiation of herbivore lineages. Using one of their original butterfly-host plant systems, the Pieridae, we identify a pierid glucosinolate detoxification mechanism, nitrile-specifier protein (NSP), as a key innovation. Larval NSP activity matches the distribution of glucosinolate in their host plants. Moreover, by using five different temporal estimates, NSP seems to have evolved shortly after the evolution of the host plant group (Brassicales) ( 10Myr). An adaptive radiation of these glucosinolate-feeding Pierinae followed, resulting in significantly elevated species numbers compared with related clades. Mechanistic understanding in its proper historical context documents more ancient and dynamic plant–insect interactions than previously envisioned. Moreover, these mechanistic insights provide the tools for detailed molecular studies of coevolution from both the plant and insect perspectives.
Fischer, H. M., C. W. Wheat, D. G. Heckel and H. Vogel 2008 Evolutionary origins of a novel host plant detoxification gene in butterflies. Molecular Biology and Evolution 25(5):809-820. PDF ; Supplemental Material
Abstract: Chemical interactions between plants and their insect herbivores provide an excellent opportunity to study the evolution of species interactions on a molecular level. Here, we investigate the molecular evolutionary events that gave rise to a novel detoxifying enzyme (nitrile-specifier protein [NSP]) in the butterfly family Pieridae, previously identified as a coevolutionary key innovation. By generating and sequencing expressed sequence tags, genomic libraries, and screening databases we found NSP to be a member of an insect-specific gene family, which we characterized and named the NSP-like gene family. Members consist of variable tandem repeats, are gut expressed, and are found across Insecta evolving in a dynamic, ongoing birth–death process. In the Lepidoptera, multiple copies of single-domain major allergen genes are present and originate via tandem duplications. Multiple domain genes are found solely within the brassicaceous-feeding Pieridae butterflies, one of them being NSP and another called major allergen (MA). Analyses suggest that NSP and its paralog MA have a unique single-domain evolutionary origin, being formed by intragenic domain duplication followed by tandem whole-gene duplication. Duplicates subsequently experienced a period of relaxed constraint followed by an increase in constraint, perhaps after neofunctionalization. NSP and its ortholog MA are still experiencing high rates of change, reflecting a dynamic evolution consistent with the known role of NSP in plant–insect interactions. Our results provide direct evidence to the hypothesis that gene duplication is one of the driving forces for speciation and adaptation, showing that both within- and whole-gene tandem duplications are a powerful force underlying evolutionary adaptation.