How did genes evolve when insects learned to fly?
The evolution of powered flight is a major innovation that has facilitated the success of insects. Previously, studies of birds, bats, and insects have detected molecular signatures of differing selection regimes in energy-related genes associated with flight evolution and/or loss. Here, using DNA sequences from over 1,000 nuclear and mitochondrial protein-coding genes obtained from insect transcriptomes, we conduct a broader exploration of which gene categories display positive and relaxed selection at the origin of flight as well as with multiple independent losses of flight.
We detected a number of categories of nuclear genes more often under positive selection in the lineage leading to the winged insects (Pterygota), related to catabolic processes such as proteases, as well as splicing-related genes. Flight loss was associated with relaxed selection signatures in splicing genes, mirroring the results for flight evolution. Similar to previous studies of flight loss in various animal taxa, we observed consistently higher non-synonymous-to-synonymous substitution ratios in mitochondrial genes of flightless lineages, indicative of relaxed selection in energy-related genes. While oxidative phosphorylation genes were not detected as being under selection with the origin of flight specifically, they were most often detected as being under positive selection in holometabolous (complete metamorphosis) insects as compared with other insect lineages.
This study supports some convergence in gene-specific selection pressures associated with flight ability, and the exploratory analysis provided some new insights into gene categories potentially associated with the gain and loss of flight in insects.
The research was recently published with GigaScience:
Mitterboeck, T. F.#, S. Liu#, S. J. Adamowicz, J. Fu, R. Zhang, W. Song, K. Meusemann, and X. Zhou*. 2017. Positive and relaxed selection associated with flight evolution and loss in insect transcriptomes. GigaScience. gix073. PDF