Poelstra JW, Vijay N, Hoeppner MP, Wolf JB
Mol. Ecol. 24 (18) 4617-4628 [2015-09-00; online 2015-09-10]
Animal coloration is one of the most conspicuous phenotypic traits in natural populations and has important implications for adaptation and speciation. Changes in coloration can occur over surprisingly short evolutionary timescales, while recurrence of similar colour patterns across large phylogenetic distances is also common. Even though the genetic basis of pigment production is well understood, little is known about the mechanisms regulating colour patterning. In this study, we shed light on the molecular elements regulating regional pigment production in two genetically near-identical crow taxa with striking differences in a eumelanin-based phenotype: black carrion and grey-coated hooded crows. We produced a high-quality genome annotation and analysed transcriptome data from a 2 × 2 design of active melanogenic feather follicles from head (black in both taxa) and torso (black in carrion and grey in hooded crow). Extensive, parallel expression differences between body regions in both taxa, enriched for melanogenesis genes (e.g. ASIP, CORIN, and ALDH6), indicated the presence of cryptic prepatterning also in all-black carrion crows. Meanwhile, colour-specific expression (grey vs. black) was limited to a small number of melanogenesis genes in close association with the central transcription factor MITF (most notably HPGDS, NDP and RASGRF1). We conclude that colour pattern differences between the taxa likely result from an interaction between divergence in upstream elements of the melanogenesis pathway and genes that provide an underlying prepattern across the body through positional information. A model of evolutionary stable prepatterns that can be exposed and masked through simple regulatory changes may explain the phylogenetically independent recurrence of colour patterns that is observed across corvids and many other vertebrate groups.