Fish may show how nature diversifies

December 20, 2001 Although the threespine stickleback fish has been celebrated on the currency of the Netherlands and been a star of a pioneering 1928 French documentary film, the fish has found its most receptive audience with biologists, who have been studying it for more than 100 years. In what may be its most important role yet, the stickleback is being used as a model by researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) at Stanford University to track the genetic changes that define a species, a puzzle that until now could not be tested experimentally in vertebrate animals.

In the December 20, 2001, issue of the journal Nature, HHMI investigator David M. Kingsley, HHMI associate Catherine L. Peichel and their colleagues at Stanford, the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, and the University of British Columbia, report the creation of a genetic map of the fish that will make it possible for Kingsleys lab and others to tie behavioral, ecological, morphological and physiological differences among the various species of sticklebacks to changes in the genome.

We see this as our chance to find out how many genetic changes it takes to evolve new traits, said Kingsley. Using this method we can ask which genes or developmental pathways nature uses to create a new species.

The scientists were able to study the molecular evolution of the threespine stickleback due to its recent evolution since the end of the last Ice Age, which occurred 15,000 years ago. When the giant glaciers melted, they created thousands of lakes and streams in North America, Europe, and Asia. These waters were colonized by the sticklebacks marine ancestors, which adapted to life in fresh water. The spiny fish, which are one- to six-inches long, were remarkably successful in adapting to various niches in their new habitats.

The fish have evolved so recently that it

Contact: Jim Keeley
Howard Hughes Medical Institute

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