"Nasonia is currently the best genomic model system for understanding the genetic architecture of early speciation and complex phenotypes like behavior," says Gadau.
"Because we have sequenced the genomes of three closely related species, we are able to study what changes have occurred during the divergence of these species from one another," says Werren. "One of the interesting findings is that DNA of mitochondria, a small organelle that 'powers' the cell in organisms as diverse as yeast and people, evolves very fast in Nasonia. Because of this, the genes of the cell's nucleus that encode proteins for the mitochondria must also evolve quickly to 'keep up."
It is these co-adapting gene sets that appear to cause problems in hybrids when the species mate with each other. Gadau's ASU team is among the research groups delving into these mitochondrial-nuclear gene interactions. Since mitochondria are involved in a number of human diseases, as well as fertility and aging, the rapidly evolving mitochondria of Nasonia and coadapting nuclear genes could be useful research tools to investigate these processes.
"Mitochondrial diseases in humans which have their origin in the malfunction of this interaction are the most frequent genetic disorders in humans," Gadau notes. "What we learn in Nasonia might help us to understand how these diseases work and may lead to cures."
Another startling discovery is that Nasonia has been picking up and using genes from bacteria and Pox viruses (relatives of the human smallpox virus). "We don't yet know what these genes are doing in Nasonia," says Werren, "but the acquisition of genes from bacteria and viruses could be an important mechanism for evolutionary innovation in animals, and this is a striking potentia
|Contact: Margaret Coulombe|
Arizona State University