Gene expression stasis and plasticity following migration into a foreign environment


Selection against migrants is key to maintaining genetic differences between populations linked by dispersal. However, migrants may mitigate fitness costs by proactively choosing among available habitats, or by phenotypic plasticity. We previously reported that a reciprocal transplant of lake and stream stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) found little support for divergent selection. Here, we revisit that experiment to test whether phenotypic plasticity in gene expression may have helped migrants adjust to unfamiliar habitats. We measured gene expression profiles in stickleback via TagSeq and tested whether migrants between lake and stream habitats exhibited a plastic response to their new environment that allowed them to converge on the expression profile of adapted natives. We report extensive gene expression differences between genetically divergent lake and stream stickleback, despite gene flow. But for many genes, expression was highly plastic. Fish transplanted into the adjoining habitat partially converged on the expression profile typical of natives from their new habitat. This suggests that expression plasticity may soften the impact of migration. Nonetheless, lake and stream fish differed in survival rates and parasite infection rates in our study, implying that expression plasticity is not fast or extensive enough to fully homogenize fish performance.

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