Digestive organ in the female reproductive tract borrows genes from multiple organ systems to adopt critical functions.

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Persistent adaptive challenges are often met with the evolution of novel physiological traits. Although there are specific examples of single genes providing new physiological functions, studies on the origin of complex organ functions are lacking. One such derived set of complex functions is found in the Lepidopteran bursa copulatrix, an organ within the female reproductive tract that digests nutrients from the male ejaculate or spermatophore. Here, we characterized bursa physiology and the evolutionary mechanisms by which it was equipped with digestive and absorptive functionality. By studying the transcriptome of the bursa and eight other tissues, we revealed a suite of highly expressed and secreted gene products providing the bursa with a combination of stomach-like traits for mechanical and enzymatic digestion of the male spermatophore. By subsequently placing these bursa genes in an evolutionary framework, we found that the vast majority of their novel digestive functions were co-opted by borrowing genes that continue to be expressed in nonreproductive tissues. However, a number of bursa-specific genes have also arisen, some of which represent unique gene families restricted to Lepidoptera and may provide novel bursa-specific functions. This pattern of promiscuous gene borrowing and relatively infrequent evolution of tissue-specific duplicates stands in contrast to studies of the evolution of novelty via single gene co-option. Our results suggest that the evolution of complex organ-level phenotypes may often be enabled (and subsequently constrained) by changes in tissue specificity that allow expression of existing genes in novel contexts, such as reproduction. The extent to which the selective pressures encountered in these novel roles require resolution via duplication and sub/neofunctionalization is likely to be determined by the need for specialized reproductive functionality. Thus, complex physiological phenotypes such as that found in the bursa offer important opportunities for understanding the relative role of pleiotropy and specialization in adaptive evolution.





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Medicine and Health Sciences




Department of Emergency Medicine, Department of Emergency Medicine Residents

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