Kingsley, Schluter and their co-workers picked one trait -- the fish's armor plating -- on which to focus intense research, using the armor as a marker to see how evolution occurred. Sticklebacks that still live in the oceans are virtually covered, from head to tail, with bony plates that offer protection. In contrast, some freshwater sticklebacks have evolved to have almost no body armor.
"It's rather like a military decision, to be either heavily armored and slow, or to be lightly armored and fast," Kingsley said. "Now, in countless lakes and streams around the world these low-armored types have evolved over and over again. It's one of the oldest and most characteristic differences between stickleback forms. It's a dramatic change: a row of 35 armor plates turning into a small handful of plates - or even no plates at all."
Using genetic crosses between armored and unarmored fish from wild populations, the research team found that one gene is what makes the difference.
"Now, for the first time, we've been able to identify the actual gene that is controlling this trait," the armor-plating on the stickleback, Kingsley said
The gene they identified is called Eda, originally named after a human genetic disorder associated with the ectodysplasin pathway, an important part of the embryonic development process. The human disorder, one of the earliest ones studied, is called ectodermal dysplasia.
"It's a famous old syndrome," Kingsley said. "Charles Darwin talked about it. It's a simple Mendelian trait that controls formation of hair, teeth and sweat glands. Darwin talked about 'the toothless men of Sind,' a pedigree (in India) that was striking because many of the men were missing their hair, had very few teeth, and couldn't sweat in hot weather. It's