Searching for the genes driving assortative mating

by Erica L. Westerman

Animals display an astonishing array of diverse colors and patterns, and animals also exhibit preferences for these diverse, species-specific traits when choosing a mate (i.e., assortative mate preference). It is hypothesized that in order for both preference and trait to be species specific, alleles for a trait and the preference for that trait must be inherited together and hence maintained as linked loci. This linkage could be maintained by three different genetic architectures: (A) the genes responsible for a species-specific preferred trait also directly influence preference for that trait; (B) genes producing preference and the preferred trait are not identical but are instead in close physical proximity in the genome; and (C) genes for preference and the preferred trait are nonadjacent but are inherited together due to selection. Merrill and colleagues test these hypotheses by performing large-scale genetic mapping of mating behavior using hybrids of two sympatric species of Heliconius butterflies, Heliconius melpomene and H. cydno. They identified three small genomic regions highly associated with mate preference, one of which was adjacent to a gene for the preferred trait, and two of which were not. Their findings illustrate that mate preference may be influenced by a small number of genes, while providing support for multiple hypotheses for the genetic architecture of assortative mate preferences.

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