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Cis-regulatory differences in isoform expression associate with life history strategy variation in Atlantic salmon

By Jukka-Pekka Verta, Paul V Debes, Nikolai Piavchenko, Annukka Ruokolainen, Outi Ovaskainen, Jacqueline Emmanuel Moustakas-Verho, Seija Tillanen, Noora Parre, Tutku Aykanat, Jaakko Erkinaro, Craig R Primmer

Posted 20 Sep 2019
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/777300

A major goal in biology is to understand how evolution shapes variation in individual life histories. Genome-wide association studies have been successful in uncovering genome regions linked with traits underlying life history variation in a range of species. However, lack of functional studies of the discovered genotype-phenotype associations severely restrains our understanding how alternative life history traits evolved and are mediated at the molecular level. Here, we report a cis -regulatory mechanism whereby expression of alternative isoforms of the transcription co-factor vestigial-like 3 ( vgll3 ) associate with variation in a key life history trait, age at maturity, in Atlantic salmon ( Salmo salar ). Using a common-garden experiment, we first show that vgll3 genotype associates with puberty timing in one-year-old salmon males. By way of temporal sampling of vgll3 expression in ten tissues across the first year of salmon development, we identify a pubertal transition in vgll3 expression where maturation coincided with a 66% reduction in testicular vgll3 expression. The late maturation allele was not only associated with a tendency to delay puberty, but also with expression of a rare transcript isoform of vgll3 pre-puberty. By comparing absolute vgll3 mRNA copies in heterozygotes we show that the expression difference between the early and late maturity alleles is largely cis -regulatory. We propose a model whereby expression of a rare isoform from the late allele shifts the liability of its carriers towards delaying puberty. These results reveal how regulatory differences can be a central mechanism for the evolution of life history traits. Author summary Alternative life history strategies are an important source of diversity within populations and promote the maintenance of adaptive capacity and population resilience. However, in many cases the molecular basis of different life history strategies remains elusive. Age at maturity is a key adaptive life history trait in Atlantic salmon and has a relatively simple genetic basis. Using salmon age at maturity as a model, we report a mechanism whereby different transcript isoforms of the key age at maturity gene, vestigial-like 3 ( vgll3 ), associate with variation in the timing of male puberty. Our results show how gene regulatory differences in conjunction with variation in gene transcript structure can encode for complex alternative life histories. ### Competing Interest Statement The authors have declared no competing interest.

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