The evolution of degenerate characteristics remains a poorly understood phenomenon. Only recently has the identification of mutations underlying regressive phenotypes become accessible through the use of genetic analyses. Focusing on the Mexican cave tetra Astyanax mexicanus, we describe, here, an analysis of the brown mutation, which was first described in the literature nearly 40 years ago. This phenotype causes reduced melanin content, decreased melanophore number, and brownish eyes in convergent cave forms of A. mexicanus. Crosses demonstrate non-complementation of the brown phenotype in F 2 individuals derived from two independent cave populations: Pachón and the linked Yerbaniz and Japonés caves, indicating the same locus is responsible for reduced pigmentation in these fish. While the brown mutant phenotype arose prior to the fixation of albinism in Pachón cave individuals, it is unclear whether the brown mutation arose before or after the fixation of albinism in the linked Yerbaniz/Japonés caves. Using a QTL approach combined with sequence and functional analyses, we have discovered that two distinct genetic alterations in the coding sequence of the gene Mc1r cause reduced pigmentation associated with the brown mutant phenotype in these caves. Our analysis identifies a novel role for Mc1r in the evolution of degenerative phenotypes in blind Mexican cavefish. Further, the brown phenotype has arisen independently in geographically separate caves, mediated through different mutations of the same gene. This example of parallelism indicates that certain genes are frequent targets of mutation in the repeated evolution of regressive phenotypes in cave-adapted species.
As we approach the 150th year since publication of On the Origin of Species, understanding the genetic architecture underlying evolutionary change remains an important challenge. When an organism enters a completely new environment or ecological niche, certain traits are no longer necessary for survival, while other new traits become critical for maintaining fitness. An example of such a transition is provided by cave animals. Many disparate taxa (e.g., crustaceans, salamanders, fish) have colonized caves, presumably to escape predation or expand populations into an unexploited niche. Strikingly, similar traits evolve convergently despite significant phylogenetic distance between these organisms. Caves provide a unique environment including the absence of light, few predators, few sources of food, etc. Under these conditions, one observes striking changes in morphology including reduction in eyes, expansion of non-visual sensory systems, and a suite of metabolic and behavioral changes. To understand the genetic underpinnings of these shifts, we have established the blind Mexican cave tetra, A. mexicanus, as a genetic system. In this paper, we use this system to investigate a classic morphological feature in these animals, depigmentation. We identify the gene Mc1r as being responsible for reduction in melanin content in multiple caves.