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Scientists find gene that fuels 'sexual arms race'

In many animals, the difference between male and female is strikingly apparent. This is especially true in birds, fish and some insects where colors and other adornments can spell the difference between mating success and failure.

Now, thanks to the lowly fruit fly and a team of scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and at Washington University in St. Louis, one genetic circuit that governs sexual dimorphism - the diagnostic differences between the sexes - has been found and characterized.

The discovery, described in the Thursday, Nov. 30, edition of the British scientific journal Nature, is important because it not only shows how and why animals dress for reproductive success, but provides a glimpse of the genetic changes that, over time, lead to the evolution of new animal species.

"Fundamentally, the difference between species is in their DNA," says Sean B. Carroll, a professor of genetics at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at UW-Madison and an author of the Nature paper. "And this genetic circuit holds the gene that makes a key difference between fly species."

In the fruit fly, specifically the laboratory workhorse Drosophila melanogaster, one of the obvious visual signals of its sex is body pigmentation: the rear end of the melanogaster male is heavily pigmented and the female's is not. This new "fruit fly fashion" has evolved only recently in a relatively small subset of Drosophila species, according to Carroll, and co-authors Artyom Kopp, also of HHMI at UW-Madison, and Ian Duncan of Washington University.

The researchers found that a gene called "bric-a-brac" establishes the difference between melanogaster females and males by suppressing pigmentation in females. However, the same gene functions in both sexes in other fly species where male-specific pigmentation is absent and males and females look pretty much the same.

Beginning with Darwin, scientists have believed that animals assume gaudy colors to promote th
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Contact: Sean B. Carroll
sbcarroll@facstaff.wisc.edu
608-262-6191
University of Wisconsin-Madison
28-Nov-2000


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