Molecular evolution of communication signals in electric fish

TitleMolecular evolution of communication signals in electric fish
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2008
AuthorsZakon HH, Zwickl DJ, Lu Y, Hillis DM
Date PublishedJUN 1

{Animal communication systems are subject to natural selection so the imprint of selection must reside in the genome of each species. Electric fish generate electric organ discharges (EODs) from a muscle-derived electric organ (EO) and use these fields for electrolocation and communication. Weakly electric teleosts have evolved at least twice (mormyriforms, gymnotiforms) allowing a comparison of the workings of evolution in two independently evolved sensory/motor systems. We focused on the genes for two Na+ channels, Nav1.4a and Nav1.4b, which are orthologs of the mammalian muscle-expressed Na+ channel gene Nav1.4. Both genes are expressed in muscle in non-electric fish. Nav1.4b is expressed in muscle in electric fish, but Nav1.4a expression has been lost from muscle and gained in the evolutionarily novel EO in both groups. We hypothesized that Nav1.4a might be evolving to optimize the EOD for different sensory environments and the generation of species-specific communication signals. We obtained the sequence for Nav1.4a from non-electric, mormyriform and gymnotiform species, estimated a phylogenetic tree, and determined rates of evolution. We observed elevated rates of evolution in this gene in both groups coincident with the loss of Nav1.4a from muscle and its compartmentalization in EO. We found amino acid substitutions at sites known to be critical for channel inactivation; analyses suggest that these changes are likely to be the result of positive selection. We suggest that the diversity of EOD waveforms in both groups of electric fish is correlated with accelerations in the rate of evolution of the Nav1.4a Na+ channel gene due to changes in selection pressure on the gene once it was solely expressed in the EO.}